Being the Mr Miyagi of Innovation

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Innovation within corporate environments is a bit like a Roman Galley, everyone has an oar but only a few are pulling really hard.  The size of corporations means that it is very difficult to know whether everyone is giving their all in terms of creativity. Many corporations don’t even try to evaluate the creative effort of the majority of their employees, preferring instead to measure a select few “innovators” and to hope that the rest are doing their part.  If, when looking at your corporation, you accept that you cannot tell if everyone is pulling to their creative limit, then you have to ask yourself “why wouldn’t they?”

Anyone who has been in a role where they are responsible for product innovation is probably aware of the change that happens over time to your relationship with the ideas that you generate.  This change fundamentally exists in the level of attachment your ego and your ideas have to each other.  Early in your career you may remember how important each idea was to you and how personal each failed idea felt.  Your ideas were a reflection of you and your worth.  However, over time this attachment breaks down and you realize that of all the millions of reasons for an idea to be rejected none have anything to do with your personal value.  You also begin to realize how deep the well of ideas available to you really is and how little importance any individual idea has.  If we can recognize this in ourselves how can we use this knowledge to create stronger innovation cultures within our corporations?  One approach is to learn from a master, in this case Mr Miyagi.

The year is 1984, a young Daniel LaRusso, recently relocated from Newark asks a kindly karate master “Mr Miyagi” to train him in the martial art.  Miyagi agrees and immediately puts him to work painting his house, sanding his floors and waxing his car – “Daniel san, wax on, wax off”.  We then learn that Miyagi is teaching Daniel defence; the action of waxing defends Daniel from a punch and is the most important thing for him to learn early in his Karate training.  Would Daniel have returned to Miyagi day after day if his tutor repeatedly punched him in the face hoping that he would eventually figure out how to defend himself?  Unlikely.

Why would we expect nascent innovators to return to the process of innovating after receiving the personal attack of idea rejection?  Innovation requires practice and the best practice early on is defence.  Build up the capacity of your innovators to take rejection and learn from mistakes by sharing your own historical blunders.  Nurture your creative groups and protect them from feeling personally rejected when their ideas fail to progress by making them aware of just how rare a ready-to-launch idea really is.  As they develop they will become naturally thick-skinned and better contributors, eventually idea rejection will have no effect at all on their energy and enthusiasm for the challenge.  When you nurture innovation like this you are removing one reason for disengagement in your innovation program and perhaps ensuring that at least a few are pulling as hard as they can on the corporate oar.

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