You’re too Scared to Innovate

One of the best live shows that I saw during my university days was Beat Happening and Girl Trouble. All of us were a long way from home in Washington when I saw them in New Jersey. While Beat Happening was playing what I thought was a pretty mesmerising show, my friend Tom leaned over to me and said ‘we could do that.’ I looked at him for a long time, then said ‘but we don’t, do we?’

We didn’t then, and we don’t now. We don’t play like Beat Happening, we don’t do a lot of things that it seems like we could, if we just tried it. Calvin, Heather and Bret did not play complex music:

and yet, there haven’t been many bands like them. Why not?

Seth Godin says in his new book Linchpin that it’s because we’re afraid. His contention is that the way to be personally remarkable is to make art, and that it is within everyone’s capability to do this. Here’s his description of Fred Wilson and Jerry Colonna’s investment firm Flatiron Partners:

…for five years, they returned profits and created companies like few other funds in history. After the fact, it seems obvious that this was a special moment in time, and that taking advantage of it was smart. But there, right then, it wasn’t obvious, it wasn’t easy, and there certainly wasn’t a manual. Anyone could have done, but anyone didn’t. They did.

Godin’s explanation for why people don’t regularly create things that sets them apart, that makes them remarkable is fear. His idea is rooted in biology –

The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because her lizard brain told her to.

Want to know why so many companies can’t keep up with Apple? It’s because they compromise, have meetings, work to fit in, fear the critics and generally work to appease the lizard. Meetings are just one symptom of an organization run by the lizard brain. Late launches, middle of the road products and the rationalization that goes with them are others.

This reminds me of the most common reason give me for why they aren’t innovative: their boss won’t let them be innovative. Or their company won’t. Or both. Or their industry isn’t innovative. It’s all the same excuse – I can’t innovate because I’m scared.

Here’s the thing – if you really want to innovate, and there really isn’t any scope for you to do so in your current position, then you have to get a new job. Either that, or you have to figure out how much you can get away with, and try some things. Either way, you have to take action – now.

Godin says that way to get around the problem is discipline. You have to practice overriding the fear. The more times you do this, the more self-confidence you gain, and the easier it gets. But it never gets easy – you always have to fight the fear. I know that I sure do.

Here’s my prescription:

  1. Think about how much you can get away with – if you manage a budget, how much discretion to you have? If you don’t have a budget, what are the parts of your job that you control?
  2. Make a list of 10 things that you can do within the current scope of your work that will make things better for the people with whom you interact – customers, co-workers, bosses, whoever.
  3. Do those things.
  4. Figure out which ones worked, and those more.
  5. Figure out which ones didn’t work, learn why not, then forget about them.
  6. Focus on the ideas that went well – even if only one of them works, you just made your work a better place.

The point with this is to just get started with innovation. Try things that are cheap experiments. Learn from failures, amplify successes. Try a lot of ideas at once so that you don’t get too attached to them – if you only have one idea, the stakes are much higher, even for a cheap and quick experiment.

As you do this more, you’ll get better at it – you’ll build innovation skills. Linchpin is worth reading to find out how to start building these skills. If you get really, really good at thinking up and testing new ideas, then getting them to spread, your job will get more interesting, and you’ll have more opportunities. This means change, and that’s a big part of what causes the fear. But it’s also what provides the rewards.

And if you get exceptionally good at all of this, you might make it look so effortless that anyone that watches you work will think that they can do it too – just like Beat Happening.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “You’re too Scared to Innovate

  1. This post represents a tipping point for me, with respect to crossing the chasm to buy Linchpin. I’ve seen a few other reviews and references to the book, but the observations made here shift it from “nice-to-read” to “must-read”.

    A few related items came to mind while reading this post. One is one of my favorite posts by Kathy Sierra (from 2005): Be Brave or Go Home … which I just [re]discovered was prompted by Seth Godin.

    Another is an image I often conjure up with respect to risk-taking in an organizational context: someone leaning over a cliff, with one hand reaching out into the abyss and the other grasping the hand of a person who is standing on more stable footing and providing support … possibly supported, in turn, by someone further back from the cliff. One can, of course, take risks without a strong support structure, but I believe leaders wanting to encourage innovation can best do so through cultivating a strong support culture.

    Finally, your helpful prescription for overriding fear reminded me of Susan Jeffers’ book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, in which she offers a “no lose model” to making decisions. I’ve read the entire book several times and written about it a few times on my own blog. At the risk of extending an already overly long comment, I hope you won’t mind if I copy and paste the basic steps here:

    Before you make a decision:

    1. Focus immediately on the no-lose model (whichever path you choose will provide learning opportunities … even if it’s learning what you don’t like)
    2. Do your homework (talk to as many people as will listen … both to help clarify your own intention and to get alternative perspectives)
    3. Establish your priorities (which pathway is more in line with your overall goals in life – at the present time)
    4. Trust your impulses (your body gives you good clues about which way to go)
    5. Lighten up (it really doesn’t matter – it’s all part of a lifelong learning process)

    After making a decision:

    1. Throw away the picture (if you focus on what you expected, you may miss the unexpected opportunities that arise along the new path you’ve chosen)
    2. Accept total responsibility for your decision (don’t give away your power)
    3. Don’t protect, correct (commit yourself to any decision you make and give it all you got … but if it doesn’t work out, change it!)

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Joe. The Jeffers book sounds excellent and I’ll check it out.

    Personally, I enjoy Godin in much the same way that I enjoy Tom Peters. Both of them help me figure out new ways to do things and actually inspire me to take action. I’ve read a couple of legitimate criticisms of Linchpin – one takes issue with idea that people should try to be ‘indispensible’ while the other doesn’t like the self-help aspect of the book.

    I can see both points. But on the other hand, at least with respect to innovation, ‘my boss won’t let me’ is the number one thing that I hear from people – by a mile. I think that Linchpin provides a correct analysis of what causes this response and a good set of suggestions for how to deal with it.

Comments are closed.