Are you struggling to get your new initiatives off the ground? Do you wish your organization was more nimble and entrepreneurial? Do you yearn to build a team of people who don’t need a rule-book … people who can handle ambiguity? Do you daydream about having a team of fearless innovators who bring you great ideas, and then leap into action to make their ideas a reality?
OK, fine, it’s good to have goals.
But if you don’t work in that kind of environment right now, are you sure you know what innovation really looks like … up close and personal? And when you interview an innovator, just what exactly should you look for? And after you hire them, will your office be like the set of Mad Men?
If you’re looking for someone with a history of serendipitous moments, where the innovation muse whispers brilliance into their ear, the cosmos align, the sun bursts through the fog and birds start chirping, you will be looking for a very long time. As children we all heard the tale of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, causing a supposedly sudden insight into his theory of gravity. But few of us heard what Mr. Newton was doing prior to that famous moment. So does innovation look like blindingly brilliant moments of fruit-inspired inspiration? Or does it look more like the part of the story that happened before the apple fell?
Sorry kids, strokes of genius are really tiny–more like pointillist painting than the broad-brush conversational style used in most executive suites. If you want to hire an innovator, don’t look for a fast-talker with grandiose ideas, they will not go the distance. As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it, “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”
Instead of hiring a big talker, seek out someone who can methodically and painstakingly take tiny, unconnected painted dots (ideas) and form them into a bigger (and more interesting) picture. Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, calls this the “Myth of Epiphany.” As he puts it, “Epiphany stories project illusions of certainty since they’re always about successful ideas. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it.”
Other researchers have also concluded that innovation is a far more arduous process than most of us are led to believe. Keith Sawyer describes how one researcher set out to chronicle Eureka! moments only to find that good ideas are actually built upon bit-by-bit. Peter Sims studied Pixar and the creative process used by world-class architects and comedians. Here is what he said:
“It may take Chris Rock six months to a year to develop one hour of comedy, and he does it by just scribbling ideas down on sheets of paper, going into these clubs unannounced and sitting down in a very relaxed, casual way with the audience, so that they know that, “Hey, this is not Chris Rock in prime time. This is Chris Rock in development mode.” He’ll just start riffing with the audience and he’ll bomb. It will be awkward at times. But what he’s doing is he’s looking for just a little hint as to where a hidden joke might be, and, once he finds that, then he keeps on that idea and keeps iterating, keeps improving, tweaking, until it becomes more and more a joke that he can use in his routine.”
Chris Rock knows many of his joke ideas will bomb. More importantly, he knows that’s completely OK. He revises and edits his material until he arrives at the tightly crafted sets we see on HBO. Breakthrough ideas and innovations are built on foundations of mistakes and dead ends. Innovation is surprisingly methodical, as it emerges over time out of “peripheral” knowledge, or out of seemingly irrelevant ideas.
Even on TV, innovation does not look so easy:
What appears to be an effortless flash of brilliance in this clip did not come out of nowhere (though the timing is fortunate). Prior to the dramatic scene, Don Draper had spent the entire episode scribbling countless pitch ideas onto napkins, only to decide they were all terrible.
So how do you build a more innovative organization?