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Innovation Visionaries: Leading The Creation Of The Unknown

There’s been a lot of chatter and movement in the ideas surrounding the Metaverse lately, and this will only continue to get louder as more work is done in this space. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my Dad in the 90’s and he was talking to me about The Information Superhighway and how it was going to change aspects of the way we work, live and communicate. You see, he’d just come back from COMDEX conference in 1994 and was telling me about everything he learned there.

As a young girl in high school, I know I didn’t truly grasp everything he was telling me – I was a little more into the Smashing Pumpkins & Soundgarden than tech nerd at that point in my life. It wasn’t all lost on me though - what I did take away from our conversation was that the conference was about a vision for the future and what did people like Bill Gates believe our technology world would all be in ten years’ time. He had a stunning vision for the future that included smart devices, PC’s in our pockets, payment gateways and the list goes on. None of that existed at the time except in the hearts and minds of these visionaries.

He was very clear in his view that the innovation wasn’t in the idea, but in the way it will be created. Many of the ideas that Bill Gates spoke about were then brought to life by companies that weren’t Microsoft and other individuals from outside the industry. Whilst it took longer than 10 years, we use all of those technologies these visionaries were dreaming about today.

Innovation needs to be brave, bold and fearless to create

something that’s never been done before

I was reminded by all of this as I read a great article by Harry McCracken in Fast Company – you can read the article here. The Metaverse is another visionary push to develop the technology of the future. It doesn’t exist today, and who knows if it’s all possible and how long it will take. The message to take away is that the focus for innovation in technology needs to be brave, bold and fearless to create something that’s never been done before.

This is what my team and I have incredible fun doing everyday – we support, coach and guide leaders and team through a structured process to turn their true innovation ideas into concepts, and where viable taking it from concept to a product / service in market.

True innovation is about more than the conceptual ideation of an idea, it’s the iterative process that you move through to take a thought bubble through to an MVP for testing, then if viable into something that can be launched into the market. It’s a long, hairy process that can be full of dead ends, dark rabbit holes and often a list of how “not to do” something. Not every idea works. Some work, but the market isn’t receptive to it. Why? Because when we’re creating something entirely new it doesn’t come with a blueprint or how to guide – we must create that.

As leaders our role may take various forms, and it may not be any of the actual ‘doing’ for the innovation itself. The role is still critical. Your role is to be the rudder for this ship. Keep them centred and focussed as they move through the challenges, failures, wins and learning discoveries. It’s a long journey ahead, so here are my top four tips for leaders to support their innovation teams:

1. Push their limits, but make it purposeful

I mention this a lot because the team need to be focused on the purpose of what they’re aiming to achieve. Innovation in its true definition is challenging and paradigm shifting. Getting there requires people to be shifted out of their comfort zones, and this can make people in and out of the team quite uncomfortable at times. When your people understand the vision, purpose and desired outcome for your innovation concept, it will be easier for them to come on the journey.

In some instances, you will be asking people to think about, experiment or create things that they didn’t think were possible. People inherently don’t like to fail, particularly at work, so expect to see resistance occurring in a number of different ways. We work with leaders and teams to coach them through resistance so they can help their teams stay the course - even when it seems impossible. Like change, innovation happens at an individual level, and our role as leaders is to support individuals move through this process. The purpose in this instance was the customer and knowing that solving this problem will revolutionise this work going forward. Staying focused on this purpose we can push people outside of their comfort zone and bring out their inner genius.

2. Control the Pace

There is always an abundance of excitement at the beginning of these projects but it will be important to control the pace of the team. It’s said a lot but this really is a marathon and not a sprint. It can be too easy for team members to throw all their energy into the project at the beginning and then struggle to maintain the momentum if they are not finding the solutions or outcomes. When doing something that hasn’t been done before we expect to see things that don’t work and ideas that fail and send the team back to the drawing board.

Whilst we understand these setbacks are a crucial part of the flearning process (learning through failure), it can have an unconscious impact on the morale of the team. As a leader you must help guide the team to establish a consistent and sustainable work pace to keep momentum moving.

When you don’t know how long something will take it is important to create a cadence of work that your team can sustain over a long period of time. The desire to achieve can see many team members burning the midnight oil, and this can be ok in short bursts but it is not great for the health, morale and wellbeing of your team if this becomes the norm.

3. Manage burnout, exhaustion and disappointment

There’s no way to sugar coat it – the journey to true innovation is tough and it is paved with failed attempts and tears of frustration. This can be heightened by the tension in the corporate environment to deliver to timeframes, budgets and fit in a somewhat neat box that can be reported against. Innovation is never on time, on budget or easy to forecast and this is a continuous form of tension in the corporate landscape.

We see innovation burnout and exhaustion occur in two ways:

1. Exhaustion and defeat as the team struggle to find solutions or make them work consistently. You will be coaching and guiding your team through periods of exhaustion and defeat. As a leader you will also need to manage your energy through this process.

2. Acting as the buffer between the team and senior management you will find yourself pushing up against the corporate machine as updates on progress, spend to date and likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.

This can creep up on everyone so slowly and take a stranglehold before you realise it. I work with my leaders and teams and help them plan for this. When I tell my clients to plan for some tears, tantrums and emotional outbursts they can often be a bit perplexed. This is done through creating a safe space for the people in your team. Whether it’s over coffee, in a weekly retro or over some beer and pizzas create the space weekly for the team to offload everything that has happened in the week. Provide the space for your team to unload their frustrations every week. We have seen lots of laughs, tears and new ways formulated through this process. There is more than team bonding going on here, we are providing a safe space to air any concerns and stop it taking up space in the individuals head, allowing them to get on with it or transfer that to the leader or team members that can help.

4. Manage Internal Expectations

Organisations are driven by process and the rhythm of scheduled delivery, but this doesn’t align too well with innovation. It can go against the grain to know that it may not work. There will also be questions on budgets, resourcing requirements and timing. Inevitably there’s always one person who will be trying to put this into a neat and defined timetable. For a lot of this, leaders and their teams will not have answers, and this can make the powers that be a little nervous from time to time. Innovation leaders who get in front of this are significantly more successful and have teams that feel safer to work through alternative options to solve their problems.

It is integral that leaders shield their innovation teams from this as much as they can by being the buffer to these questions, whilst at the same time providing as much transparency as possible. It’s something that I continually say, which is to take the stakeholders on the innovation development journey with you so they don’t feel like it is being done in a black box and they understand the work being done.

Leading teams to develop the unknown ideas of the future is a challenging privilege. One that is filled with emotional highs and lows, but made wonderful by watching the genius of people come to life. I hope you find this tips useful as you lead your innovation team through the creation and development of ideas that will be transformational.

Enjoy the journey - have fun, innovate and transform the future.

Want to learn more about unlocking the genius in your organisation? Grab a copy of my best-selling book Corporate Innervation: Unlocking the Genius Inside Your Organisation at major book stores everywhere, or grab a copy from the link below.

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