Sharpen Your Instinct for Innovation

I just started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, and boy is it good!  I have to admit that I have loved every book that Gladwell has ever written.  At times I am not sure that I understand the purpose of a particular story, but I still love reading all of his stories.  Sometimes I have finished one of his books and wondered, “What was the purpose of that book?” but I’m only going to admit that to a few close friends (Ooops!) and even then it’s not going to keep me from really loving the book.

One of the things that has already struck me about this book, though, is a point that I do understand.  In brief…Gladwell points out that one reason “Underdogs” win wars, games, and competitions that they are not expected to win is that they don’t care.  It’s not that they don’t care about winning or succeeding.  They DO care about that.  But what they don’t care about is the opinion of the establishment, the conventional wisdom, and the so-called experts’ criticism.

That intentional indifference allows them to have the courage to attempt the impossible, to think outside of the box, and to try innovative things that others are afraid to try.  What Gladwell points out is that it’s not that others won’t try these things because they are afraid that they won’t work.  They don’t try them because they are afraid of what others will say.

That’s why innovations almost always come from the edges.  If you are too intertwined with the perceived establishment, it will be very difficult (not impossible) for you to be an innovator or even an early adopter.  You can be, but you will have to be very intentional and possess a good bit of emotional fortitude because it is likely that you will be criticized by people for which you care. This is a real dilemma because in order to be a good leader, you have to network with others and build strong relationships, but at the same time, those very relationships can sometimes become things that dull your ability to catch the next wave of innovation.  We all have some need for approval from others—whether it’s our colleagues, our staff, our constituents, or our Board.  But how can you keep that from diminishing your instinct for innovation?

  • Honor the people on the edges of your own organization—There’s a good chance that the person you identify as sort of “out there” has some rough edges and may not fit in all that well with the rest of the team.  That can mean that you have a tendency to dismiss his/her ideas.  Maybe you should consider, however, that this is the person who may have just enough distance from the core—to provide different, innovative, and much needed ideas. Listen to him/her. You may not embrace everything that you hear, but you should hear it.
  • Reserve the right to think for yourself—and then use that right!—There’s no greater service that you, as a leader, provide to your organization than your ability to think clearly about reality and about the future.  There will always be a long line of people that are willing to do your thinking for you, but it’s not something you can delegate.  Too many leaders do delegate it or completely neglect it.  That’s a sure sign that a drought of innovation has set in.
  • Stop worrying about the proverbial “They”—“Who is ‘They’?”  That’s a question that I’ve started asking leaders often.  It’s because I hear leaders refer to “They” so casually, as if everyone knows who “They” are!  I’m not sure that even the leader knows who “They” are.  Sometimes—Many Times—I’m not even sure “They” exist.  Whoever “They” are, you will demoralize your team and diminish your effectiveness if you spend too much time worrying about them.
  • Build deep, transparent, and meaningful relationships but beware of seeking validation from others—Here’s a secret—There may be a shortage of water in the world—but compared to the amount of validation in the world—there’s an overabundance of water!  There’s plenty of oxygen in the world; there’s plenty of sunshine; and there’s plenty of wind—but there will never be enough validation to satisfy the craving of people who seek validation from other people.  Seeking validation from others is like drinking salt water.   It won’t help you.  It will kill you.  I’m not suggesting that you be distant, macho, or a lone ranger kind of leader.  Not at all.  However, if you are too dependent upon the approval of others to convince yourself that you are adequate as a leader, it’s going to be a frustrating journey.


Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

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