The innovator’s dilemma
“SMART goals,” the CEO said, “can only WOW investors and customers if we dare to set the “A”-level at Awesome and Audacious Achievements, rather than settling for something Achievable, Average, Adequate.” We can set Specific, Measurable, Relevant and Time-bound goals without making anyone’s palms sweat. But when we set the bar high and someone says, ‘Ouch!’ – that’s a defining moment, when leaders have to PowerUP Brilliance™ so we come away from a debate saying, “Bring it on!” and “Let’s make it happen!”
Research by innovation guru Robert Cooper reports that 80% of the projects in most corporate pipelines are safe incremental me-too upgrades — rather than bold breakthroughs that will change the lives of the people who buy the “brand-new” discovery, use it, or have it used on them and take the enterprise to a dramatic new pinnacle of success. An automobile journalist reported on the 2013 Detroit auto show and expressed disappointment about how this has affected the state of the industry. When the big breakthroughs that German automobile engineers report focus on the luminous efficiency of their headlamps, the reporter said, there’s something terribly wrong – especially when there are so many unmet needs that have to be solved, for personal transportation to be a sustainable enterprise. Why are the big guys with deep pockets doing the same-old-same-old, and leaving real innovation to start-ups like Tesla and Elio?
Boards, investors and CEOs say they want Brilliance from the people they rely on to secure their futures. But, in contrast to what they say, they often foster a culture that says, “Play it safe. Don’t make waves. Make no mistakes. Make people feel secure, comfortable and safe – rather than taking them somewhere they weren’t sure that they wanted to go.” With such mixed messages from your board and, if you’re not in the C-suite, from your boss, how do you set your A-level?
Seeds and the empty pot: A Chinese children’s folktale
We first heard this Chinese folktale from Tuli Flint, an Israeli social worker teaching defence leaders to PowerUP Brilliance. It introduces us to Jun, a luminary child-gardener known for growing the best biggest flowers, fruits and vegetables in his Province. When the King and Queen, who were childless, announced that they would select the best child-gardener to be their heir, everyone in the Province assumed that Jun assumed would win.
The King and Queen recruited high-potential child-gardeners from every Province in the Kingdom and brought them to the Palace. They passed around a basket of magic seeds and asked Jun and the other candidates to choose the ones they would plant. “In 3 months, we will tour the Kingdom to see the peppers you grow from our magic seeds,” the Queen said. “Our heir will be the child-gardener who grows their magic seeds into the tallest most prolific pepper plants.”
Three months later, Jun was the only child-gardener whose seeds had not sprouted. No matter how hard he tried, how he fertilised and watered the soil, how he gave his pots the right sunlight, nothing grew from the magic seeds. Every other child-gardener in the Kingdom grew incredible pots of pepper plants – with beautiful flowers and lots of large produce. There were red, orange, green, yellow, black and multi-coloured peppers in incredible designs – hot, sweet, fragrant, even sour.
It would be difficult for the King and Queen to declare any one to be the winner. Except Jun, who had nothing to show. One of the elders from Jun’s village sent a message to the King and Queen, telling them not to come. To their shame and embarrassment, they Royal Couple came anyway — saying that they had promised to see what every single candidate had grown.
When the King and Queen arrived, Jun hung his head. “Your Highnesses,” he said, “I tried everything. I even thought about changing seeds. But your instructions were explicit – to use your magic seeds and grow peppers from those seeds and those seeds only. Sadly, I was unable to do honour to your seeds. The dishonour is mine, not anyone else’s in our Province.”
The Royal Couple smiled and announced, on the spot, that Jun would be their heir. A gasp was heard in the crowd. Was this a trick? Was the contest rigged? A few people wondered – silently of course – whether the Royal Couple had totally lost their sanity.
The Royal Couple explained their decision. “This was a test of integrity. All of the seeds in the basket were boiled before the competition. None of them would grow peppers. But only one child played by the rules, told the truth, kept learning and controlled the Province’s frustration. He showed us why he deserves our trust. So meet Jun, your next King.”
The A-level paradox – colour inside the lines AND think out of the box
Everyone but Jun assumed that the King and Queen were willing to bypass rules, manners and do ‘whatever it took’ to achieve Audacious, Awesome pepper production – and reward the most productive gardener in the Kingdom. Were they wrong? Were they misled by a King and Queen who did not ‘walk their talk,’ when they said they would select the child-gardener with the most brilliant A-level performance – and were too conservative, rule-bound and risk-averse to reward luminary gardeners who used their ingenuity and imagination to think out of the box?
In far too many corporations and VC-backed entrepreneurial ventures, innovators like Jun and his fellow luminaries face this dilemma. They are told to think big, reach for the stars, PowerUP Brilliance™. Then, when they do, the portfolio review committees, boards of directors, regulatory and finance teams say, “Whoa. Not so fast,” and allocate investments to business proposals that are safer and more pedestrian. Like headlamps, rather than composite plastics, electric power trains or front-to-back rather than side-by-side seating arrangements.
When your leaders get mixed messages like this – or are told, “that’s too risky for us,” after they PowerUP Brilliance™ and do their best creative thinking – how should they balance the priorities and navigate through the complexities?
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