A good reminder from our Innovative Brain blog vault - originally published 12/2010.
Just because the swamp is calm, it doesn't mean there are no alligators.
When human beings get comfortable, their primitive brain - the gator brain - fights hard to keep change from happening. Unfortunately the gator brain is old, but not wise.
It blocks innovation. It believes that safety comes from sameness. It does not understand that in a rapidly evolving commercial environment, survival requires change. Only the individuals and organizations which are able to override the gator brain will survive and move profitably into the future. If you think to yourself "I've got my gator brain under control.", think again. That's your gator brain getting you to stop being vigilant. Your competition will thank you.
Obstacle 2: Divergent and convergent thinking at the same time.
Driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake is wasteful and slows you down.
Creative thinking is the fuel that energizes innovation. We're most creative when we separate divergent thinking from convergent thinking. It's best when we create a big list of problems, or a big list of ideas to solve those problems, before we stop and choose the "right" problem to solve, or the "best" ideas to move forward on. Unfortunately, our habit as human beings is to think of new things and judge them immediately, one at a time (see gator brain above). Smart drivers of innovation know to separate these two thinking steps. Diverge fully before you converge. Accelerate, pause to coast, and ask the question "Have we travelled enough distance in our thinking?" then gently brake so you stop in the correct spot. Anything else wastes energy, causes unnecessary wear, and breaks things unnecessarily.
Obstacle 3: Mistaking good execution for good strategy.
If at first you don't succeed, solve a different problem.
The commercial world is littered with well executed strategic plans that were focused on the wrong strategy. But people were happy up until the end, because they were "making progress". Successful innovation -- creativity that yields value over time -- is most likely to occur when adequate creative thinking is applied to clarifying the right problem to solve, the right challenge to overcome, or the right opportunity to pursue. We commonly assign our creative energy to "generating ideas" which is great, if those ideas are targeting the correct challenge. But slow down a moment (see driving instructions above) and do the diverge converge dance to make sure you're focused on the right target. Then, you can make progress to the correct destination, rather than follow the herd path that gets you lost deeply in the woods.
Obstacle 4: Confusing protecting the status quo with avoiding risk.
Go ahead, see what you can find that is new and interesting with your head down. Not much. There are organizations in your sector that are getting ready to take your territory, your share, and your profit. They are casting their gaze widely and bring new thinking into their people's consciousness. Into their creative brains. Who will do this better? You or your competition? Unfortunately, doing this with only the minds currently sitting inside your organization will put you at a competitive disadvantage. Partnering well with outside thinkers-- people with experiences, backgrounds and perspectives different from those inside your enterprise -- yields true market differentiating thinking over time. You need people who know their job with you is temporary, and who will only get a call back in the future if they challenge, stretch and strengthen your organization's thinking. They'll take risks your own employees will not, and speak the truths that are uncomfortable and shocking enough to get your internal folks to look up and take more notice of things they might not see so well with their heads down in the day to day work of your organization. Navel gazing while driving innovation is dangerous. But our friend Jeff, who buys companies for pennies on the dollar, loves it that people do both. Keep your resume updated at least.
If you can overcome these four obstacles you'll be more likely to have innovation success. We know you can't overcome these obstacles overnight. It'll take a lot of hard work by a lot of people to make progress. But hey, that's better than navel gazing...isn't it?