The Journey to Real Innovation

On a list of corporate buzzwords, “innovation” ranks near the top. It’s discussed and dissected in books and articles and pondered endlessly at conferences and in boardrooms. Nevertheless, the concept is at the center of enterprise and IT success. And, as Zafer Achi, a director emeritus of McKinsey’s Dubai office, and Jennifer Garvey Berger, a partner at Cultivating Leadership, point out, it’s all about taking risks and daring to imagine what’s possible.

The pair describes this concept as “delighting in the possible.” They write: “It’s only natural to seek certainty, especially in the face of the unknown. Long ago, shamans performed intricate dances to summon rain. It didn’t matter that any success they enjoyed was random, as long as the tribe felt that its water supply was in capable hands. Nowadays, late nights of number crunching, feasts of modeling and the familiar rituals of presentations have replaced the rain dances of old. But often, the odds of generating reliable insights are not much better.”

This pretty much sums up the state of innovation within a typical enterprise. For every Apple or Disney that dares to dream, reinvent and revolutionize, a gazillion other companies are mired in the mundane. Many of them succeed at some level but few truly excel. Likewise, few IT departments build and unleash a digital enterprise that is truly equipped to turn the world upside down and inside out.

A fundamental problem is the questions leaders ask and how they frame issues. What is the expected return on this investment? What is the three-year plan for this venture? At what cost are they willing to settle? This produces a mindset of clarity, if not outright certainty, they say. And it ultimately leads to business-as-usual results rather than any real breakthrough.

The goal? Move from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible,” the authors argue. Emirates Airline managed to pull off the feat. It grew from two leased planes to a massive fleet that has redefined Dubai and helped it grow into a major economic center. So did Twitter, which originated after the creators recognized that they felt lively and engaged when they shot real time SMS messages back and forth.

The key? Reframe and revamp thinking in radical ways. Change perspectives, including attempting to think like those who annoy, irritate and confound us. Seek out opinions from beyond the comfort zone, and truly listen to what other people–and colleagues–have to say. Instead of trying to convince them to change their conclusion or thinking, learn to listen and consider changing your own conclusions. Finally, take small and smart risks and experiment.

There are no easy answers. But delighting in the possible is the first step on a journey to real innovation.

Samuel Greengard, a contributor to CIO Insight, writes about business, technology and other topics. His forthcoming book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press), will be released in the spring of 2015.

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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