The Crappy Crapshoot of Innovation
I want to state this as plainly as I know how: innovation is fucking hard. In a world that rewards predictable procedures and predetermined products, innovation is a crapshoot. A brand new idea could prove a roaring success but there’s a good shot no one tried anything like that before for good reasons. Trial by potential public humiliation is on order, not just once but many times over to ensure observed failure isn’t a flaw in execution but an inherent problem with the design.
I say all this to remind our Generative Fellows that as we head into our second retreat, marking the end of your fellowship, if you feel like you haven’t gotten “enough” done or that you didn’t land where you envisioned, welcome to innovation!
In our fellowship, we approach innovation through the following iterative Design Thinking process: identify and empathize with the who/enduser -> define the problem you seek to address-> generate a bunch of potential approaches-> prototype the most likely one -> test it out in the world. At each phase we solicit and receive feedback, opening ourselves to learning we’re woefully wrong. We could be wrong about who we’re designing for, the problem we’re tackling, the proposed solution or the prototype we made.
According to research, only 20% of workers in the for-profit sector are inclined toward innovation. (Hard to say how that measures up in our social change sector.) This means innovators hatch their plans surrounded by people not drawn to putting together ideas to come up with something new, unusual and thus inherently risky. In a normative world that doesn’t necessarily understand or support innovation, innovation requires we carve out the time, space, resources and emotional capacity to lean into risk and go the untraversed path.
At CoreAlign, our hope is to give the 20%-ers the platform to accelerate as innovators and spread the gospel of innovation to the 80%, who may never join in fully but can learn to appreciate and get out of the way.
Through a deliberate self-reflection process, I’ve come to think of myself as somebody who doesn’t produce one innovative idea but who gravitates towards and engages in a series of innovations. At CoreAlign, we’re all developing an identity as innovators; making a new path necessarily means there’s no map to guide us. In my role as director of this expedition, I constantly feel like we have not done enough — we can’t even ask the dreaded “are we there yet” because we’re imagining the destination as we forge the trail. Beyond all the usual impediments anyone in our social change sector battles — lack of time, resources, and powerful foes among the list— we’re questioning where we’re headed every step of the way. While the scope and scale might be different for fellows with full-time jobs and no funds, the question is the same, “Have we done enough?”
Every morning, I wake up cataloging where we have not made enough progress– the online network, the 30-year strategy, more resources for the innovation fellowship, the race conversations, and storytelling. On some of these items, the CoreAlign team has made bold gambles, others we don’t have the time or resources to address, and still others, like storytelling, leave me lost and discouraged. With the race conversations, I can’t tell if we are spending appropriately long in the research phase or whether we are just too scared to dive in and make a mess, because messy it will surely be.
Yet, despite all the thoughts of “not enough” the process of innovation demands forward motion, cycling through the stages of Design Thinking and flirting with failure and discouragement. In a recent article, an author battling illness wrote, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” While he was writing about life and death, that phrase captures the uncertainty and resilience of innovation and creativity.
I sometimes compare this process to being a quarterback. Sometimes you get sacked behind the line of scrimmage, sometimes you risk the interception for the pass, and sometimes you execute the slow, painful march down the field where each play advances a mere three yards, blinding you in a cloud of dust.
But in considering why I do this, I’m reminded of the never guaranteed but hugely thrilling touchdown: the new idea, the breakthrough, the delicious delight of a different perspective, and the hope that lies in giving the world what we need to win. These deep emotions are the counterweight keeping us balanced on that razors edge of uncertainty, ambiguity and failure. Without the big risks, there would be no big rewards.
So, Generative Fellows, when you feel like “not enough”, know that is an inescapable part of the process and welcome to being an innovator!