For small startup folks, innovation can often go like this: you wake up one morning with a great idea for improving your business. At the office, you excitedly tell your colleagues all about it and by the end of the day there’s a plan in place for testing it out. It’s certainly a fun–albeit risky–reality for those who have the luxury of living it, but in the corporate world the same approach can be seen as reckless and unprofessional.
“Innovation is not on the executive agenda,” explained Jim Euchner, vice president of global innovation at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. “Political agendas kill projects. The company doesn’t bet to win [investing sufficient resources.] There’s a lot of deferring commitment, for instance, repeatedly requesting more analysis and data before moving ahead.”
Seth Godin, an entrpreneur, author and public speaker, summed up this bottleneck quite nicely in a recent Creative Mornings talk: “One of the things I hear the most after I give a talk or if someone reads one of my books is, ‘that’s great…but my boss won’t let me.’ Well of course she won’t. Because what you’re saying to her is: I want to do something really cool and really neat and if it works I’ll get the credit but if it doesn’t you’ll get the blame because you said it was okay. Who would take that deal?”
Don’t Wait for Permission
Obviously not many business leaders would willingly choose that short of a straw, which is why not waiting for their permission is essential to getting the job done. Godin calls this approach “leading up” — a method by which to lead people above you to make better decisions. And while it might sound like a one-way ticket to unemployment, he argues that if we want to be successful, the follow-the-leader mentality is no longer an option.
“It’s so easy to say, ‘My boss won’t let me,’ but what we’re really saying is ‘no one gave me an effective place to hide,’” he adds.
Thankfully, Godin also offers a few suggestions for making leading up less hazardous to your career:
- Do it on purpose. Ask yourself each day how you are laying the tracks to get your boss to be a better boss. That’s your job.
- Tell stories that resonate with those in charge. Proving something will work is hard, but you can certainly tell stories that will help open up reserved minds to different possibilities.
- Demand responsibility, but don’t worry about authority. It’s a bottom-up world these days, and people who go out and take responsibility are also given responsibility.
- Reflect credit but embrace blame. Bosses are usually pretty eager to work with people who make them look good, so Godin suggests doing small things (that won’t get you fired) without asking. If they work, go to your boss and let them take full credit for what you did. If they don’t work, go to your boss and take full responsibility.
If Godin’s method is a little too on the guerrilla warfare side, a handful of executives offered corporate innovation tips at the 2013 Innovation Leaders Forum. A few of my favorites:
- Lorna Ross of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation: “Visuals are really powerful. We try to make the invisible visible.When you can show somebody where the problems are, it can be easier to get people to change.”
- Euchner: “You need to create a sense of urgency [around innovation] at a gut level, not just a PR level.”
- Phil Swisher, Chief Innovation Officer at Brown Brothers Harriman: “Don’t talk about change. Change makes people nervous. We talk about pursuing new opportunities.”
Check out more insights from this talk over on boston.com.
Or, hey! You Could Quit!
Not many people like to suggest quitting, but man, sometimes you really ought to.
Circling back to Godin’s talk, while he doesn’t suggest throwing in the towel too soon, he does say that if the people you work for don’t get it, you should go somewhere where they do. If you’re working with people who are truly stuck in a way they cannot get out of, go make a change elsewhere.
Because (and this was the most insightful point of the talk, in my opinion) we no longer live in world where we’re picked. That world is over and is in the process of being replaced by the awesome and scary responsibility of picking yourself. And so, if you’re looking for people to say ‘no’ to you so you have an excuse, you’re probably spending your time doing the wrong thing.