This Is Not A Religious Screed
Let me just get that out of the way right up front. I am not at all a religious person – but I have to say that I feel this metaphor will ring true for many who are even passingly familiar with the so-called tradition of “deadly sins”, which at their root are simply bad behaviors that seem to be common in human nature. So I’ll ask that you not take the “sin” part of this article too seriously; it’s just meant to provide a kind of structure describing some basic human traits, a loose correspondence – it’s not meant to be an exact analogy at all.
This post is about innovation and all the things that entrenched individuals in organizations do to prevent or destroy it. I hope this article provides a framework for innovators to understand (and hopefully overcome) the politically attuned people whose motivations are to not lose face or to jockey for position or to cling to their rung of the organizational ladder when they find themselves caught in the wake of disruptive innovation.
Every frustrated innovator will immediately recognize aspects of these seven scenarios, and will simultaneously grit their teeth and sardonically grin inwardly while recalling the last time these things last happened to them. I also like the idea of referring to people who commit any of these fundamentally anti-innovative acts as sinners… especially those who claim the desire to be innovative, but who ultimately end up performing one or more of the cowardly, selfish acts described below.
“Our organization desperately needs to innovate – we need to look everywhere for every possible avenue of innovation.”
We begin our examination with Lust – intense desire and uncontrollable urges. In an organization, this amounts to using one’s passion to make decisions. While passion is normally an admirable thing, and may even be a necessary component for innovation, it cannot work alone to bring innovation about. Lust without purpose is empty, and attempting to innovate without the reasoning to support it ultimately amounts to nothing. It’s more important to take time to understand all the relevant factors, internal and external, that can lead to true innovation in an organization.
The Solution: Chastity – refraining from distractions. Focus is the key. Understanding the processes of your organization is one step, competitive analysis is another step, customer research is yet another step – and when you combine all the right elements together for your organization, you’ll be able to pinpoint where and when innovation can and should occur. Right thought before right action.
“We’re going to implement every innovative process we can as quickly as possible. We’re all about innovation!”
Gluttony, an over-indulgence or over-consumption. Though this sounds much like the “sin” of Lust, what differentiates this kind of anti-innovative behavior is that some practice is actually occurring beyond constantly seeking paths to innovation. This is actually following through with plans of some stripe, but doing so without regard or care for how to enact the process.
Beyond just taking action, ratiocination, analysis, and contemplation are key to innovation. Real innovation takes planning and forethought, it doesn’t just happen like a spark catching a flame and BOOM you’re innovating. It’s most like a science; it takes thought, imagination, logic, experimentation, and follow-through – it can’t be achieved through mindless indulgence. And the proper execution of the science is necessary to achieve results.
The Solution: Temperance – taking the appropriate actions at the right time. You should understand that innovation is a study and a mindset as well as a practice. The world is constantly changing, and innovation is about creating new adaptations that help your organization perform better today and to prepare for what is to come. Timing is so key, and it’s critical to not only marshal resources but to also use them in the right way at the right moment. Never forget that Apple made the Newton before it made the iPhone; innovation enacted before its time cannot succeed.
“It doesn’t make any business sense. We can’t move forward with this new project, there’s still too much profit to be extracted from our existing system.”
This sin is all about acquiring more money. Which is great, by the way, it’s not an inherently bad thing to acquire money. What is bad is when you lose sight of what’s really important for your organization: that businesses do not operate to make money! If you believe that, they taught you wrongly, and I’m sorry that happened to you. The simple truth is that businesses exist to make customers happy. Making money is always a side effect of making a customer happy. Of course, it’s great fun for you if you happen to be a monopoly with captive customers whom you can charge whatever amount you want, squeezing blood from stones and all that; but as soon as your customers can choose something else that has out-innovated you, THEY WILL ALL LEAVE AT ONCE and you will not make money any more.
The Solution: Charity – “be giving towards all.” In order to keep customers happy, innovation must be continuous. Sometimes that means actually taking some of the profit the company makes and re-investing it into building the innovations that will be necessary for the future, the things that will keep your customers happy down the road. You need to “give” charitably to your future customers in the form of an investment in innovation. You’re also giving yourself and your stakeholders sustained profits in the future – don’t be shortsighted by greed!
“There’s no reason to do this thing now. We’re moving along just fine as we are, there’s no need to rock the boat at this time.”
This sin tends goes hand in hand with Greed; it is all about the failure to do what should be done. It is the easiest thing in the world to grow fat and lazy, especially when times are good and the harvest is plentiful. But of course if you want the harvest to stay plentiful, you have to continue to sow for the future.
The Solution: Diligence – displaying fortitude, never giving up. The difference between this and charity is in execution; it’s not enough to simply put aside resources to invest in the innovations to come. You must also work hard to constantly chase the horizon of the future as it recedes while the world continues to change. Basic research is so important, but how many companies really put in the effort to pursue it? And it is really, really hard! Every experiment will end in failure until you finally hit on the right thing, and no one wants to be perceived as constantly failing at something – which is why it is so, so crucial to communicate to everyone that failure is NEVER failure; every well run experiment will result in data and learning and lead to the next step forward. Every “failure” produces another brick that’s used in building the foundation for the future.
“I don’t care whether this works or what benefits it could provide. I’m in charge, and I don’t want it to go forward, period. This project is dead.”
Next comes Wrath – uncontrolled feelings of hatred or anger. We see this in organizations from those individuals who, without logic or reason, blindly oppose change or steps towards innovation. They are the people with agendas, who want to maintain their status quo for whatever personal reasons. In many ways, this sin is the worst and most difficult to deal with, especially when the people who are Wrathful are in positions of power… and it’s the worst when it’s an anti-innovative CEO (especially when they want to seem innovative to everyone around them, but truly want nothing of the sort).
The Solution: Patience – Enduring the seemingly unbearable. As an innovator, you can combat Wrath by waiting it out or routing around it and understanding that there are many paths to innovation. Sometimes this means creating a skunkworks; if it weren’t for Dennis Ritchie and his team secretly working on their operating system for AT&T during off hours, the world would never have gained UNIX.
You will sometimes find yourself in an untenable position where you cannot deal with this in your organization (especially in the CEO scenario); when that happens, sometimes the only thing you can do is leave – innovation will not happen there without a massive upheaval, and if innovation is what you’re seeking, you’ll have to seek it elsewhere.
“We need to do what they’re doing. We’re missing out on huge opportunities!”
It took me a little while to figure out what form of anti-innovation corresponded to envy. I soon realized it was more obvious than I’d thought… Envy is sorrow at the success of another – and that’s the stifling of innovation through the wholesale duplication of a competitor’s product. Someone in your organization sees what another organization is doing, and becomes sorrowful that their success is not yours. The solution seems obvious: simply create your own version for your existing customers.
This kind of thinking (or rather, complete LACK of thinking) leads to the creation of things like Google Buzz. Remember when the first iPods and iPhones came out, and every other manufacturer immediately rushed to create duplicate products? Apple changed the landscape completely for that hardware, and everyone else became an also-ran and has never been able to unseat the first, most innovative product. Creating a clone of something is not innovation, not even remotely.
The Solution: This may be the one area where the deadly sin metaphor totally breaks in big way; the virtue that is the opposite of Envy is Kindness – keeping a positive outlook, having empathy, trust. Yet I feel that the innovative opposite of making a thoughtless clone of a competing product is to completely shift the paradigm and change the market landscape. This is exactly what Apple did in 2007 with the first iPhone. To further illustrate the example: Amazon should never have tried to make and market its own smartphone; they failed utterly with the Fire Phone. Instead, Jeff Bezos should concentrate on creating smartdrones – personal mobile devices that fly around the user, receiving voice commands, taking aerial selfies (no selfie stick required), guiding users to locations by flying in front of them on the path to their destination… now THAT would be massively disruptive, and it’s really all quite technologically feasible now, or a couple of years from now. I’m sure Martha Stewart would be the first one in line to buy a smartdrone.
So I concede, I can’t come up with a particularly creative way to relate paradigm shifting to Kindness. Onwards!
“Our existing offering is perfect. All of our customers give us glowing reviews. How could it possibly be made any better? Why do you even think you can make it better?”
Last, but not least, we come to Pride – the source of all other sins, an excessive self-admiration. This is literally a denial of the state and nature of the world. Do you truly believe that the world is unchanging? That markets never age or shift, tastes never change, that resources never grow or dwindle?
That kind of thinking is the height of hubris. And it may seem to be well warranted; a company that has survived, even thrived, for many decades, seemingly unassailable, valued highly by all – why would it ever believe it would be threatened? It is a foolish attitude, when any glance at history will tell you that innovative contenders unseat incumbents all the time, often in ways “no one” would have ever considered.
The Solution: Humility – The courage of heart necessary to undertake tasks which are difficult, tedious or unglamorous, and to graciously accept the sacrifices involved. Just as in nature, organizations need to constantly evolve or they will die out. No one stays at the top of the game forever, and it’s important to always expect change. In fact, you can even take things one step better than that – ABC: Always Be Changing.
Innovative thought and action are the only way to survive, and really the only way to thrive. A company can limp along for quite some time, as long as it can stay in the good graces of its customers and competitors – and it’s true that this is often enough for many people who just want to eke out an existence and cling to what they have. What they don’t realize is that “security” like that is an illusion, and people who believe they’ve got a good thing going are inevitably shocked when they wake up one day and find that everything they’ve held on to no longer exists!
Innovate or be out-innovated!