Want To Innovate? Don’t Get Too Comfortable

A colleague recently confided in me that although her association is facing serious challenges, the board isn’t interested in learning how to govern more effectively. Her attempts to educate them are always met with resistance.

You can guess where this group is headed. If they manage to survive over the next few years, it will be a painful struggle. The situation is unfortunate because this association represents an industry that has the potential for exponential growth. This is an extreme example of why innovation is a critical organizational value.

Innovative organizations are not just the digital superstars. Being first to jump on every bandwagon doesn’t make you an innovator. Although openness to experimentation and new approaches is important, that is not what drives innovation.

Keep Raising the Bar

At its core, innovation revolves around solving problems—something the .orgSource team loves to do. Whether the solution is a shiny new toy or that well-used teddy bear depends on which choice will stop the baby from crying. Innovation should not just center on your toughest or most pressing challenges.

I think of innovation as continuous quality improvement. It is the willingness to be deliberately uncomfortable. You can take a moment to relax and bask in your accomplishments, but you can never stop raising the bar or asking how you can meet new goals more effectively.

How do you build a culture that’s always on the lookout for a better path to success? The book I wrote with my business partner Kevin Ordonez, “Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation,” answers that question from multiple perspectives. We interviewed some of the most creative entrepreneurs in the association industry. No matter how far our conversations roamed, innovation remained part of the dialogue.

Become Problem Solver in Chief

Although our contributors offered a variety of recommendations, they universally agreed that the CEO, along with being the leader, must be problem solver in chief. A boss who can’t manage change and is skeptical of new ideas, will not find employees lining up to present their greatest thinking. On the other hand, an open mind and a questing spirit, are magnets for creativity and inspiration. Hugh Lee, Co-Founder of Fusion Productions, describes innovative leaders like this:

Success is all about connecting the dots.

“To succeed during this time of opportunity, CEOs need to be young at heart. There will be pins and needles and speed bumps as business shifts and changes. Passion and a sense of purpose about where they are taking the organization will be critical. But the most important ability is a bit elusive. It’s a talent that develops from a combination of experience, training, and intuition. You need to pay attention, read the landscape, and see beyond the present moment. Success is all about connecting the dots. The world is full of opportunity, but you must be ready to seize it.” 

Executives need the vision to discover innovative areas for growth and the courage to insist upon change. Success in an increasingly competitive environment, requires leaders who are iconoclasts, who don’t just upset the applecart but knock it over on purpose. An innovative approach will be an indispensable component of governance. Executives must find the drive to retool their organizations to fit emerging landscapes and the single-minded enthusiasm to bring others along with them on a challenging but exhilarating journey.

Discover Diamonds

And, what about those others? How do you build an enthusiastic team? Where do you find employees  who are willing to go beyond getting the job done to doing the job better every day? Before you consider recruiting, look around. Ask yourself whether you are making the most of your current team.

When I begin a project with a new client, I typically interview the staff. The goal is to understand their skills, uncover where their enthusiasm lies, and determine who will be best suited for the job at hand. This is exciting because I often discover diamonds in the rough, or people who are being underutilized in their current capacity. Not so gratifying, but equally insightful, is finding people who are either underqualified or uninterested in their assigned roles.

People who are underutilized may be diamonds in the rough.

The ability to see things differently requires effort. Employees who are ill-equipped for or uninspired by their work will not be motivated to extend themselves creatively. Take an unbiased look at your organization from the coordinators to the executive team.  Do you have the right skills in the right places?  Better still, talk to people. Find out what motivates them to get up in the morning and what makes them want to call in sick. Discover where people are exceling and where they are struggling. Then, if necessary, have the courage to reposition.

Charlie Judy, Chief People and Culture Officer, Intelligent Medical Objects, explains his evolution as a leader like this:

“I realize now that I need to get out of the way and allow people to use their skills. In a high-growth start-up—limited resources, accelerated timelines, big expectations, and a tremendous load of deliverables—means there is a low tolerance for mediocre talent. You must have the right people in the right seats, and you need to be very selective. If you hire the wrong employees at the least its lost opportunity, at the most it’s failure. I’d like to think that I’m getting better at putting the best people on the team.”

Believe in Magic

Once you have that dream team in place, don’t underestimate what they can accomplish. Belief in their ability to achieve the extraordinary goes a long way toward getting them there. Joanna Pineda, Founder, CEO, and Chief Troublemaker of Matrix Inc., International, describes her confidence like this:

“I don’t take no for an answer. This isn’t because I’m trying to be challenging or difficult. I fervently believe that no matter how complicated the goal, there is always a way to accomplish it. When our business considers undertaking a difficult project, I don’t wonder whether we can do it; I assume we can. The question I do ask is: In order to be successful, what needs to happen? That creates a different dynamic for assessing the situation.”

Speak a Common Language

One of the characteristics of a successful organization is a shared vocabulary with language that everyone hears in the same way. When you’re the boss, people may be reluctant to ask questions. Under those circumstances, it’s easy to believe that everyone understands your messaging. If your team doesn’t know where you want to go; no matter how hard they try, they’ll never get there. Don’t assume clarity; guarantee it by going beyond superficial explanations to unequivocal comprehension. Judy shared these thoughts on the importance of communicating intentions:

“When a group decides that they want to be more innovative, each person attaches their own meaning to that term. Typically, we don’t  acknowledge that this is not a switch we can flip. There is a journey to take. The first step is to define what the goal means to us as a group. What does success look like, what does it feel like, what does it sound like? Then we must assess who we are today and what behaviors and systems need to change to bridge that gap. Having a town hall meeting and saying that you want to focus on innovation is not enough. You’ve got to go deeper and arrive at an organizational awareness about the desired result.”

Commit To Ongoing Change

Judy is right; you can’t flip a switch. Becoming an innovative organization is an ongoing commitment to change. My colleague’s board members refuse to acknowledge that to accomplish their goals, they will need to operate in a different way. That strategy may leave egos intact, but it’s disastrous for the organization. Success in the digital marketplace means getting so used to being a little uncomfortable that it starts to feel just right.

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