In the second chapter, you say, Why is that so important?
It’s why they choose what they choose, why they reject what they reject, why they engage in a commentary or dialogue about a brand or product. It’s important because, like it or not, many people are a bit disconnected from why they do particular things. They’ve never thought about it deeply. When you ask them, Why do you buy this brand or product? they either don’t know or they may just tell you what they think you want to hear. So one of the core skills of an innovator is to get under the skin of why people do what they do and understand some of those locked-in feelings and desires. One of the big differences between doing this kind of activity as an innovator rather than a researcher is, as an innovator, you’re constantly thinking about the outcome. You’re outcome-obsessed because innovation is entirely defined by outcomes, by something happening. Innovators are interested in insights, but only insofar as they can stimulate an idea or activity that can be brought to market and deliver value. The search for insights, why people do what they do, is particularly exciting as an innovator. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s a practical exercise.
You go on to say these insights are created by the serendipitous collision of provocative observations. I’d like you to speak to that, but I want to touch on the definition of serendipity in the book.
It’s such a nice word to say; it’s so very mellifluous. But that’s obviously not the reason I chose it. I decided to investigate what serendipity meant, and it took me on quite a journey. There’s a lot of controversy around what it means. There are two accounts. One says serendipity is about happy accidents. The other says it’s about the discovery of things by chance—but not totally by chance, because you’ve tried so many things, you’ve kissed so many frogs, that you were bound to discover something in the end. There’s an element of hard work behind this seemingly lucky concept, and it seems to me that this fits the reality of the innovator’s journey perfectly. I’ve never worked on an innovation project in 20 years that ended up exactly where anyone predicted it would.What always seems to happen is that, if we can fill ourselves with useful stimulus, pursue a clear direction, and have the kind of open, accepting behaviors within a group of people that invite a collision of ideas and insights, we’ll always end up in a place that is 10 times more exciting than where we thought we might.
Powered by, I would suggest, an acute sense of observation.
Innovators are good listeners, and they’re good observers. I don’t think they’re necessarily creative people—and certainly, in our company, we’ve never used creativity as recruitment criteria. We hire smart people who can connect the dots and have enough emotional intelligence to drive anidea through an organization. And as we know in our daily lives, there are people who are like magnets to ideas, people you want to tell things to because you feel they’re interested in you. Innovators are good at that, and they’re good at creating this magnetic field around themselves that attracts ideas and insights.
The creativity that a good innovator brings is driven, to a degree, by a comfort with ambiguity that traditional creative people have. But you’re combining two things. I never can keep it straight, right brain and left brain, but there’s the observational necessity that’s, one might argue, the science of serendipity. And then there’s the creative aspect of not worrying about what these observations mean, but having the emotional confidence to pull it all together even though you don’t know where it’s headed.
One of the things that we talk a lot about at ?What If! is the importance of being f you’re in your comfort zone, if you feel you’re exploring things that have been explored before, then, by definition, you’re not going to be innovative. It takes a certain maturity to handle working on assignments like this. We work under a lot of pressure. We have clients who are keen for an outcome, and yet we have to work at a certain pace. We have to have time to explore. We have to lookunder stones where we haven’t looked before, and we can’t guarantee we’re going to find anything under each stone. So you have to be a confident, mature person to go on a voyage of discovery, and you also have to know when to switch from an expansive way of thinking to a reductive way of thinking. Picking up on your theme about the kind of left-right brain types, we don’t call it that at ?What If! We call it expansive thinking and reductive thinking. The typical innovation process is shaped like a Christmas tree. If you can imagine, at the bottom, it has a wider space for more expansive thinking.
And it narrows in, and it goes out a bit, it narrows in, and it goes out a bit, and it narrows in, and it goes out a bit—all up to a point at the top. This is the shape of the process of innovation. We’re expanding the opportunity, and then we’re contracting it. Then we’re expanding it a bit more, then we’re contracting it a bit more—and each time we go through a cycle, we’re narrowing the options. And it takes a team of people, because I’ve never met the perfect person with this left- and right-side brain that is equally powered. It takes a team with different skill sets to navigate through an expansive and reductive process.
Matt, you’ve mentioned the pressures of time, of client demands. What are the largest impediments to success for ?What If! or any innovation consultancy? Is it time, money, and the client? Or put another way, when it doesn’t work, what typically gets in the way?
What gets in the way of our company growing or in the way of us being able to innovate brilliantly for our clients?
The latter, which might drive the former.
It may well. The biggest issue in our space is not the quality of the new ideas. It’s the ability to drive them through the client organization so they see the light of the day in all the original beauty with which they were conceived. Making things happen at work is tough, and the bigger the organization the tougher it gets. A lot of this comes down to risk. When organizations are small or when people are early in their careers, they’re more willing to take risks. As we get more senior, we develop more obligations in our lives, our careers become more important, and risk starts to taste different. And like it or not, this dynamic has a creeping impact that can affect people at a large organization in a way they don’t even realize. The presence of self-limiting beliefs in an organization are tough. When we think about how we might achieve something at work, it’s generally possible to do, but it’s equally easy to let your shoulders droop, sit back, and say, “I’ll never be able to do that here” or “That’s just not going to happen here.”
Simple resignation. Hence the need, as you put it, to battle the corporate machine. How does one do that? Is it a cultural issue, an organizational issue, a spiritual issue?
Every organization’s different, but there’s an element of each at play. The one undeniable, organic truth about any organization is that the bigger and more complex it gets, the harder it is to make something happen. There are so many moving parts. The importance of having real alignment around what you’re going for, defining that goal in a way that’s exciting and uplifting, so people feel it affects their mojo, is critical. So that people can come into work feeling excited about the challenge they’re working on. This is important in a large organization. It’s a source of motivation to power yourself through the naysayers and cynics. Being excited about the purpose of the innovation, the good it can ultimately deliver, and the battle that you’re fighting, is important.
Check back next week for the last installment from this interview.