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Embrace the Divergents
Keys to Innovation Part 1
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic highlights how you can't just want innovation; you have to think innovation so that you can unlock the true capabilities in your existing systems and chart a course for the stars. This is part one of an envisioned series of insights into innovation.
Everyone wants innovation. I mean, everyone knows that this is how you solve problems. Every CEO, every leader, every business, every non-profit, everyone wants cool new things and ideas.
But when push comes to shove these same people who just uttered the goals for innovation then turn and want their teams to focus on the tactical, ship the next basic feature, do myopic proofs of concept that don't scale, don't do the work to retire their tech debt, and plan their projects quarter by quarter. They literally say to shoot for the stars, and then turn and stare at their toes. This results in what the Harvard Business Review calls Innovation Theatre. The words are all there, the teams are formed, and then business as usual continues.
The thing is:
Everyone loves innovation until it creates risk;
Innovation IS Risk;
Risk can be managed!
A challenge is that every organization has an established and safe status quo and its organizational and incentive structure is designed to maintain that. No one will say they don’t want innovation, but few people in this status quo are willing to take the risk to actually innovate.
To challenge this paradigm, the first key to actual innovation is to embrace the divergents. Conformity, specialization, and tactical focus need to be complemented by systems thinkers. You need to recruit the polymaths, you need to let them look five years ahead and across multiple areas. You need tech planning to look into the future for the realm of the possible and the impossible. You need strong systems documentation and a cross-functional focus on retiring tech debt. You need futurists and you need the rebels. You can't just want innovation. You have to think innovation so that you can unlock the true capabilities in your existing systems and chart a course for the stars.
The issue is, these innovators are like Pirates in the Navy. As the book of the same name documents, these are not the traditional career ladder climbers. They are not risk-averse, they don’t blend in, they aren’t ‘safe’, and they certainly rock the boat. It’s not hard to see why the divergents don’t fit in, and it’s also not hard to see why the status quo of the 'Navy’ doesn’t change. It takes blending the two together and managing for innovation.
Why is it essential to manage innovation? Because Innovation is the structured, disciplined, and intentional execution of ideas in a chaotic and noisy opportunity space. It has to be disciplined because aligned with the Scientific Method, innovation must be replicable, repeatable, and collaborative.
Innovation also has to be managed because it doesn’t just happen on its own. This is evidenced by a McKinsey study where they found that while 84% of CEOs said that innovation was essential to future success, only 6% were satisfied with their performance, and 80% recognized that they had to change the way they were managing their business. For innovation to really succeed, we recognize the need to think differently, and bringing in the divergents, the pirates, the rebels are how you do that. Proper integration requires different management techniques and the active creation of structures that support both the navy and those pesky pirates. Therefore, let’s explore a few ways to achieve innovation management by first, focusing on the organization and alignment, and second, focusing on the people.
Organization and alignment are essential. You have to accept that you will have to think differently and do differently. But that doesn’t mean throwing out the structure, it means adapting it just slightly. For example:
Don’t create innovation silos: Stay connected to the organizations that will use and scale the innovation and to those other innovators in separate fields.
In this way, you’ll capture ideas that might solve your needs from a totally different discipline (you should expect your polymaths to already be doing this as well)
Ensure strategic alignment: Understand the ultimate customer needs and align products and opportunities toward achieving new activities
This is a push-and-pull function. Shipping features does not preclude developing something no one has ever imagined
Agree on process alignment: Intentionally determine how the innovation process will align with the traditional execution process within the business
Dutifully manage the gray zone handoff between the innovation teams and the dedicated product line teams
Next, start looking at the incentive structures. When you see non-innovative behavior, look at the reward structure because people behave in line with how they are rewarded. For example, there often seems to be a disconnect between executives’ drive for innovation, the teams who are doing the innovation, and the ‘permafrost’ of middle managers. Yet these managers represent the incentive and success metrics that the executives are really holding middle managers accountable for such as:
Executing and delivering core products
Demonstrating consistent results to traditional metrics
Driving to execute over imagining and envisioning
A lack of tolerance to answer the difficult questions of ‘why’
Where defined and discrete execution is valued over ill-defined and messy problem space definition
Where merit and bonus structures do not reward risk or failure
That last bullet is the hardest to accept and change. What if we totally re-conceptualized the concept of failure? Because a paradox emerges where avoidance of failure often begets even worse failure.
System acceptance testing is a great example. We test in order to prove the system will work. We want to pass this test and if the incentive is high enough to avoid failure, we will often design the test in a way that increases the probability it will pass, even if it reduces the probability that the system will work as desired. I’ve seen this as the root cause of many actual systems failures which passed the acceptance test.
But what would happen if we applied the rule of hypothesis testing from statistics? You don’t test to prove it right, you test to prove it wrong and only fail to reject the null hypothesis if you can’t prove it wrong. Likewise, instead of testing to pass, what if the outcome was a decision? Do we go with design A, or switch to design B? If design A ‘fails’, that answers the question. It also helps to reduce the risk of passing something that shouldn’t because we aren’t married to design A passing. We want to ensure the best design makes it. We need to look at aligning our incentives to reward risk and rethink, and stop penalizing, ‘failure’.
Managing and aligning the organization and the incentives set the foundation for improved innovation and already we are challenging the status quo with even these concepts. This makes us a bit of a rebel but it prepares us for the next topic of unlocking innovation through the effective management of the people.
As we introduced the innovators we called them divergent, pirates, and rebels. They don’t quite fit in and they certainly won’t fit in if they are expected to think like the rest. As we covered in a previous essay, Investigating Personality Proclivities, that we shouldn’t expect from others what we expect from ourselves. The vast majority of the middle managers and general employee groups are Sensing and Contentious (orderly) with lower levels of Openness, and lower risk tolerance than the innovators. For example, Intuitive personality types from the Meyers-Briggs personality test make up less than 25% of the population, especially in STEM fields. Yet these are the thinkers you need on your team.
For example, my personality is highly intuitive, very open, moderately contentious, willing to be disagreeable, and almost no anxiety about it. Makes sense why I’m a Polymath, but in the eyes of leadership, I’m a bit of a divergent, pirate, and rebel. But I and people like me have the best intentions, the drive to learn and improve, and the desire to collaborate! All of the things, along with innovation, that everyone says they want! So how can you manage it?
First, don’t expect from others what you expect from yourself. Recognize the divergents aren’t thinking of things in the same way. Give them space to ideate. Understand that they often like to puzzle out loud with incomplete ideas. Expect that they’ll draw from, what appear to be, highly disparate areas and then watch them weave them together.
As Rebels at Work so beautifully captured below, this is how divergents want to be managed:
Ironically, I posted this infographic on LinkedIn while at a previous company and mentioned that I was currently dealing with the negative side of this at work (without naming the company) and subsequently had to have a conversation with HR because they worried it would besmirch their name. (I had to edit the post to remove any association) I literally gave them the instruction manual for how to work with me, and my middle management attempted to put me in their comfortable, riskless, box. Is it any wonder why only 6% of CEOs are satisfied with their innovation?
Another example was a manager I had who, during an architecture review, mentioned the need to look at ways to allow more advanced capabilities in the future. I pulled up a couple of slides I had thrown together as a side thought a few weeks before and shared the concept. You’d think I had horns on my head. First, he wanted to know why I had spent so much time on the idea, then, he pushed back because it couldn’t happen until next year, and last, he questioned why we’d even look at it now when the goal of the re-architecture didn’t include this. At this point, I was wondering if he had the horns because it only took me about 10 minutes to put the idea together, next year isn’t far off, and if we designed our architecture with that in mind now, we wouldn’t have to go back in a year and rip it out and replace it again. Clearly an example of the challenges with innovation.
What is most important to emphasize here is that that divergents shouldn’t represent chaos! This is where managing innovation is essential to ensure it’s the blend of the pirates and the rebels with the rest of the organization. It’s not an either/or but a yes/and. (Sounds a lot like our Quantum Superposition Problem from before)
Fundamentally, managing the people is balancing the thinkers with the doers, grounding the visionaries with the pragmatics, and empowering the visionaries to challenge the pragmatics. It also means that we have to accept that while everyone wants innovation, not everyone has the mindset or the inclination to be the ones doing it. And that’s OK! The world is a beautiful mix of different personality types with different skills and different interests. It’s also helpful to recognize that the innovators are sometimes not great at the work needed to actually produce the product. It isn’t a strength or a weakness. It’s a Yin and a Yang where the strength is the combination of skills between personality types.
Talking about innovation is easy. Actually innovating means diversity, discipline, and risk. It’s about creating a positive tension between personalities and surrounding it with structures that organize, direct, and establish discipline. It requires aligning incentives to reward risk and failure. (if we still even want to think of it like that) In this way, we can go from wanting innovation to thinking innovation and we can lift our eyes from our feet, and shoot for the stars all while enjoying the diversity of thought those divergents, rebels, and pirates bring to the mix.
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