Five Conventionally Accepted Wisdoms That Destroy Innovation9 May, 2018 / Articles
Businesses today operate in an unprecedented environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). Things have become too complex and change too quickly for organizations to effectively deal with challenges of the day—yet they still train leaders in traditional leadership competencies. The wisdom that made organizations successful in the past now jeopardizes their survival. Innovation is the only way to survive in today’s fast-moving environment, and success demands new leadership skills. Let’s contrast outdated rules of thumb with updated reality.
- “Failure is not an option.”
Failure is a necessary input to radical innovation. Errors accumulate from feedback loops in a self-sustaining manner, similar to A + 1 = A’ where A’ becomes A in the next iteration (this phenomenon is called autocatalysis). The result of one experiment becomes the input for the next iteration, so errors grow exponentially, like a snowball rolling down the hill. Radical innovation occurs when cumulative errors from imperfect iterations cross a critical inflection point. Instead of driving for perfection, leaders must encourage fast, safe failures, facilitate learning from those failures, and disseminate the learning quickly.
- “Good is an enemy of great.”
This wisdom represents the vestiges of the industrial era, where things were predictable and controllable. In the VUCA era, doing the right things (creating a culture of innovation) is more important than doing things right (improving efficiency). What good does it do to spend years trying to eliminate variances in the manufacturing process to produce defect-free products 99.99966% of the time—the goal of Six Sigma—if a competitor in someone’s garage totally changes the rules of the game overnight, rendering your product obsolete? A better approach in a fast-changing environment is to ship, iterate based on market feedback, rinse and repeat. This approach is far from perfection, but reaches desired results much faster because the process produces exponential learning.
- “Employees need work-life balance.”
There is no such thing as work-life balance. It’s a misnomer because it implies a zero-sum game in which spending one more unit of energy at work results in one less unit available for our families. To the bewilderment of multi-tasking advocates, our brain cannot compartmentalize as well as we think. Instead of trying to balance the two, leaders must bring their whole selves to work and to their families. Leaders must be congruent across all roles, whether as a spouse, parent, sibling, churchgoer, leader, employee, or citizen. The new leader must be comfortable operating at the edge of chaos and be congruent and integrated across bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, and actions. You must become authentic: feel what you see, express what you feel, think what you feel, and say what you think and feel. This integrated condition creates faster communication and psychological safety with your team, which are essential ingredients for innovation.
- “Don’t bring me problems unless you bring me solutions, too.”
In VUCA, it’s imperative to create a collective pool of intelligence, tapping into everyone’s to solve problems. Solutions one person—even one genius—can come up with are almost invariably inferior to those generated by the wisdom of the crowd. Gone are the days in which technical expertise and charisma reigned supreme. In these days, it’s more important to ask the right questions than to know the answers—and it’s not necessarily the leader who knows the right answers.
- “Emotions are inappropriate in the workplace.”
In corporate America, where professionalism counts more than authenticity, we have developed an over-reliance on and preference for the left brain. In the process, we’ve justified the belief that emotion and play are not professional. Excluding emotion robs our leaders of authenticity. Authenticity facilitates trust and speeds up communication and decision-making. Being authentic requires courage and vulnerability, which can only be built on the foundation of safety and trust. In other words, safety and authenticity are mutually reinforcing.
In the words of the late psychologist and professor J. Nina Lieberman, “Playfulness… arises in familiar physical settings or when the individual has the pertinent facts; . . . [then] imagination enters by twisting those facts into different combinations, not unlike the operation of a kaleidoscope.” Playfulness is an essential ingredient in the primordial soup that gives way to radical innovation.
Quantum Leadership Is Required Today
Any organism that doesn’t change with its environment faces extinction. Organizations and leaders must change to align with current unprecedented levels of change in the business environment. Conventional wisdom may have served us well during the industrial era, when things were stable and predictable, but today’s business environment is anything but that. Managers who can be successful in a VUCA environment, whom I call Quantum Leaders, defy outdated conventional wisdom. They master counterintuitive skills to facilitate radical innovation and reap its exponential rewards.