Box of Crayons Blog


The four contradictions of sustainable innovation

If innovation is going to be anything more than an empty phrase along the lines of “customer first” and “our employees are our most important asset”, then it needs to be a sustainable and engaging practice.

The problem, put bluntly, is this: if Innovation was fighting the Status Quo in an extreme sports cage match, you’d bet heavily against Innovation getting much beyond the opening bell.

Yet this is something we all need to master. If you’re a busy, ambitious manager, you can’t afford for innovation to stay in the realm of marketing or new product development. Innovation is something that  constantly needs to be in the mix as you and your team strive to do more Great Work. How do we do things bolder? More efficiently? Smarter? All of these are innovation questions

So if you’re going to don the Mexican wrestling mask of innovation, you’ll find it useful to know these four contractions of innovation.

1. Service & Selfish

The starting point for “traditional innovation” – by which I mean new products and services – has often been to get close to understanding consumer needs. In my own innovation career I spent many many days and nights running focus groups figuring out just what made people tick. And certainly being grounded in a need you’re serving can create focus and purpose.

But for the time-crunched manager, serving some other person or group of people may not be enough to keep this project rolling on. With so much going on, there’s only so far that altruism will take you. Your innovation has got to have some sort of cool factor that lights you up. What makes you rub your hands and say: I’m up for this!

2. Purpose & Pivot

Flowing from that sense of service – who does this help? – is often a clear outcome you’re working towards, a Thing you’re building to answer that need.

But (as with business plans) it’s likely a good guess that the first outcome you have in mind won’t be the final outcome. Part of the art of sustaining your innovation is a willingness to see a new opportunity and drop things to pursue it. Sometimes when you get to a peak, you discover it’s just a plateau that reveals a new path and a new peak.

3. Murder & Marinate

But say that new path appears. What do you do with the old plans? One of the disciplines of innovation – and Great Work in general – is the willingness to say No. And certainly be able to “kill your babies” helps you stay focused on the innovations that might have the best chance of making a difference.

But there’s a middle ground between giving them a Yes or a No. And it’s a “Not Quite Now”. Putting your idea or prototype or change of plans away in a drawer for a month or three or six can do wonders. If you’re like me, you often forget about it so discovering it again is a pleasant surprise. And when you do uncover it again, it may have a new relevance or resonance.

4. Contain & Contaminate

You want to focus your forces, corral your energy and create boundaries and goals for your innovation. It’s too easy to get distracted otherwise. Focus is after all one of the key attributes of Great Work

But seal yourself away too tightly in your ivory tower, and not only might you miss out on  outside influences and inspirations, but you might just miss the opportunity to inspire, influence and engage yourself.

Over to F. Scott Fitzgerald

Who said, “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.” Neither of the choices I present in these four contractions is the right answer … so long as you make a choice. What you don’t want is to be caught in the “timid middle” of neither this not that.

What are you working on that might do with a little innovation magic? And what choices will you make to keep it going?


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