by Brian Turner- June 15, 2022

My experience is that most organizations have antibodies that fight innovation. They linger in often hard-to-identify behaviors that slow or prevent organizations from breaking from parochial approaches.  Sometimes they are found in bureaucratic processes designed to slow things down in the spirit of “alignment.” Those antibodies come in many forms – the hardest to spot are found in basic human wiring – self-preservation, self-doubt and the psychological safety of the status quo. Even after your team has “stacked hands” on the decision, it is what keeps your people up at night worrying about how to cascade a decision or the objections they will hear from their teams and customers. 

But in my business, as I am sure is true with many, innovation is an essential part of our roadmap to success.

How can we, as leaders, help our organizations defeat those antibodies of resistance? How can we help sell the value of the unknown?

This is a part of my personal growth roadmap, helping leaders within my organization understand my vision of innovation, and how to make this principle part of our day-to-day thinking.

My first observation is that we need realign incentives that prioritize teamwork over individual performance and encourage teams to take smart risks. It is a long-held axiom that we reward success. But those reward structures may inhibit innovation – because then it becomes about the next sale or the next quarter’s financial results – and then long term bets become short term baby steps. Unless we find ways to reward those who look beyond the next quarter, we can only expect more of the same.

So how do we accomplish this? In all honesty, I’m trying to figure that out.  Here’s what I am doing.

I’ve changed my regular dialogs with my “innovators” to be more focused on the idea, the proof points and the leading indicators that tell us whether we are on the path of success – rather than the typical outcomes-based 1x1s.  I also have had to change my desire to problem solve in the moment when things aren’t going well – and lean more into creating the space for the leader to think around a problem. I’ve been awed by the savvy and brilliance of my team to make things work if I stay out of problem solving and continue to push the boundaries of what is possible. The coda to this thinking is that we must celebrate the idea – win or lose – recognizing that there is value in either outcome.

I also see great utility in getting an outside perspective from another organization or the willingness to challenge an organization’s talent paradigm – bringing in new players or those with different skillsets. The willingness to embrace outside ideas or even upset the staffing status quo can help accelerate change and innovation.

Perhaps the most impactful way to battle the antibodies that attack innovation lies in your own actions.  I think about how I show up to each conversation with openness and curiosity.  I think about what horizon I’m operating from (3+ years, 1-3 years, 6-12 months, 6-12 weeks, 6-12 hours, etc.).  I try to hold back judgment and lean on urgency and empathy. I think out loud a lot with my team so that they can see me navigating short term vs. long term and strategic vs. tactical.  And then when I do need to pull something back, I try to move swiftly and decisively – without emotion – focusing quickly on “what did we learn.”  

Let’s face it: failure to innovate has very real costs. If we don’t constantly look for the better way, our inaction will have negative impacts for our customer, our workforce and will ultimately on our financial performance. The biggest toll, however, are the innovators themselves – who will lose faith and start playing it safe.

Fighting the hidden antibodies that hinder innovation is a complex leadership sport. I’m still learning every day. What about you? Where do you find success in bringing innovation to life?