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Road Closed – What’s an Innovator to Do?

It’s a special occasion for you and your friends, so you are going out to celebrate. You made reservations at that trendy new restaurant you’ve eagerly wanted to try. You had to make reservations months in advance, and you’ve heard that the place has only become more popular since then. You are impeccably dressed, as is the company you’ll be keeping for the event. Your heart rate is just a bit faster than normal, as you start up your car and begin the drive downtown with your crew.

While driving in an unfamiliar area, you encounter the unexpected. Massive construction equipment looms just behind a sign that reads “ROAD CLOSED.” You consult your GPS, but it won’t give you any route but through that road block. The roads have already been a confusing tangle of one-way streets, so you aren’t even sure if a map will help.

What do you do?

a) Cancel your plans, turn around, and go home the way you came.

b) Begin exploring for alternative ways to get to the restaurant, because that is the goal of the evening.

c) Change plans and go to the theater you see that is showing a well-reviewed comedy, because the goal of the evening was to have fun and celebrate, wherever that may be.

d) Put your car in park, and wait there for the road to be opened. After all, if you call the restaurant now, you should be able to get reservations in a few months, and by then, the construction should be done.

If you chose b) or c), congratulations, you exhibit thinking like an innovator. If you chose a) or d), well, maybe you should leave innovation to somebody else.

Not So Ridiculous

In the scenario above, it is ludicrous to cancel plans just because of a roadblock. It is completely insane to just put the car in park and wait a few months. But I bet you can come up with numerous times that a corporate project came up to such a figurative roadblock, and your organization actually made similar choices – cancelling or delaying projects because the planned path encountered an unforeseen obstruction. No course corrections to get back to the original objective. No pivots to achieve a different yet equally valuable objective.

Why can we see so clearly how ridiculous that is in a going-out-to-dinner scenario than we can when it’s a business project?

Okay, I hear some of you saying, “Wait a minute, Brad…There’s a world of difference between going out to dinner with friends and working on my organization’s innovation efforts!” Of course there is. But to paraphrase the brilliant statistician George E. P. Box, all analogies are wrong, but some are useful.[1]

Sometimes, personalizing things helps to break down false perceptions that we have of the outside world. So what is the usefulness of this analogy?

Lessons to Extract

1) Have a clear understanding of the objective. Notice that in both options b) and c), the goal of the evening is mentioned. Notice further that the two alternative definitions of the goal lead to alternative solutions. Either goal may be the right one for this group of celebrators, but if they don’t understand what the goal is, or if they don’t all agree about what the goal is, they are doomed to unnecessary conflict that will keep them from getting to where they really ought to be. How often are we derailed because we lose sight of the ultimate goal?

2) “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”[2] Innovative efforts are by their nature unpredictable. To treat them as if they are predictable is to deny reality. I know of one consumer products organization that went through a long, cross-functional process to plan and define their new product development process. Every part of the organization would be sure that their route to the goal would be comfortable and unimpeded by obstacles. The beautifully laid-out, colorful Gannt Chart resulting from this company-wide endeavor (ironically code-named “The Need for Speed”) reflected a process that took roughly four years from initial idea to first shipment of goods.

In their industry, that was a worthless plan. By the time the product could be launched, it would be obsolete. However, the planning process identified the dependencies each part of the organization had on all the other parts. So when a competitive threat required the development and launch of a strategic response in just six months, this organization was able to do it. Their GPS – the Gannt Chart – was useless, but they were able to find a new path because of their planning. Had they said “oh well, we can’t do it, it doesn’t fit the plan,” the competitive losses could have been staggering. Instead, they maintained their position in a hotly contested space.

3) Get innovative thinkers in the driver’s seat. Driving the innovation road is rarely easy. If the one driving the car is the type to quit at a roadblock, the car will never reach a valuable destination. They must be willing to take educated risks, which means being willing to fail. They need to be able to understand the ultimate goal, and to help align everyone in the car on what that goal is. They need to be able to accept input from the back seat – even criticism on their driving – while confidently making the decisions necessary to get to the destination. Once at the destination, they need to be able to park the car, and go celebrate with all of the passengers.

At the risk of stretching the analogy beyond its breaking point, can you come up with other lessons? Please share!

[1] If you think in analogies the way I do, and someone challenges you with how your analogy isn’t exactly right because it doesn’t take into account this or that complexity, throw this George Box quote at them: “Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a ‘correct’ one by excessive elaboration…Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist, so over-elaboration and over-parameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.” Ouch.

[2] Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957. He went on to say, “when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” Substitute the words “innovation,” “new product,” or “new business” for “emergency,” and it is every bit as true.

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