The Tao of Innovation

Insights for the modern business samurai

The Importance of "Change-iness"

Change-iness, like truthiness, is a core skill for success.

The comedian Stephen Colbert, the Jonathan Swift of our times, coined the term "truthiness" to describe something that feels like the truth -- and is accepted as the truth based on your gut -- but is done so without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts. He was using the term to describe the Bush administration's masterful manipulation of evidence used in the argument for invading Iraq, for which it created a ring of truth... but is now being exposed through a series of tell-all's and movies, as anything but.

The Obama administration has slightly different problem, which has to do with not mastering "change-iness." Although there has actually been a remarkable plethora of real, substantive and lasting changes brought about by the Obama administration, it just doesn't feel... you know, change-y.

Obama's Job Record
Obama vs Bush in Job Creation
Speaker of the House
Certainly, Team Obama has a produced some successes: enacting the largest reform of student aid in 40 years, creating 3.7 million jobs through the stimulus (this chart to the left tells the story), sharply improving the world's opinion of the United States, ending the previous practice of having White House aides rewrite scientific and environmental reports, putting America squarely back on track in terms of technology infrastructure and appointing the nation's first Chief Technology Officer, and completing the first release of the Smart Grid framework.

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But even with this list of accomplishments, it still just doesn't feel like change was happening -- even to Obama's supporters. The reality is that change for the better is happening, but the team failed to create an emotional sense of change-iness. In other words, the Obama administration has been ineffective at marketing and positioning itself, and in essence, it has failed in its bid to use unvarnished truth to control the narrative.

Now, what does this have to do with innovation? Well, a corporate president and CEO is generally expected to do what the country's President and Commander in Chief does, but on a smaller scale -- increase economic performance and growth, develop an infrastructure for the future, and ensure that the company is a leader in the marketplace rather than the league of nations. For the CEO, innovation is possibly the most important tool for achieving these goals. In fact, the management guru Peter Drucker once said, "Every organization needs one core competence -- innovation."

However, the problem for a CEO is that even if you do get marketing and R&D to finally work together and collaborate in a meaningful way, get sales back on track, and reorganize successfully for growth... you will still be perceived as a failure if you fail to promote a feeling of change-iness to the Board, your employees, and your customers.

Here's the rub: Even if you're mid-level manager running a small innovation program, the same applies to you. Since innovation has a relatively distant investment return horizon, at least in terms of next quarter's performance, you must be diligent in promoting the energy and excitement of innovation successfully, via internal marketing and word of mouth, to keep the company's morale boosted and its focus persistent. Thus, change-iness is important no matter whether you're a mid-level officer or the humble manager or engineer who actually gets stuff done.

Here are seven keys for mastering change-iness, as well as actual change:

First, if you're setting up an innovation initiative to collect and refine ideas from the rank and file, it is advised that you do whatever it takes to come up with a handful of ideation nuggets developed by the core team, which have a shot of becoming instant hits. You should think of this more as priming the pump than salting the mine. Those quick hits increase adoption and morale and kickstart the innovation pipeline.

Second, even if your company has a "no consultants" rule based on recession-thinking, it is advised that you bring in a couple of ringers -- to help think outside the box. If you're pressed for budget, you could invite executives at companies with which you have partnered, who will likely welcome an offsite brainstorming session with their best customer. In other words, if you had a softball team, and you had a chance to include a ringer from the major leagues... you should do this only if you want to win.

Third, be innovative in promoting your innovation program. Instead of blindly posting to the intranet newsletter report, think of something that will reach your people at a gut level. For example, Jennifer Burkhart, who manages an "innovation contest" program at a financial services company, produced an intranet TV reality show to promote the process and teach throughout every level of the enterprise that ideas really do come from everywhere. Using low cost independent filmmaking techniques (remember that the movie Clerks was made for only $27,575 and created a franchise that has generated $30 million to date) Burkhart cajoled team members into volunteering time to produce the video. The result: "The reality show was everything we intended it to be: a fun, motivating and innovative learning experience that kept team members engaged and excited for future contests. The room was completely energized from beginning to end. It was tense and exciting waiting for a winner to be announced. I really love how this TV show spoke to our team members on an emotional level," says Burkhart.

Fourth, go viral. If you are using a software app to drive your innovation program, make sure it contains the same viral tools that social networks use to drive adoption -- add an "open inviter" module, leverage social media, create an internal enterprise activity stream, and leverage an intelligent user points system based on intermittent rewards scheduling. Start thinking like a cash strapped web entrepreneur or indie filmmaker and do whatever it takes to bootstrap your baby to success.

Fifth, manage the rumor mill. All good innovation programs attract naysayers like horseflies, whether they be corporate antibodies, innovation managers from competing divisions, or managers of previous failed innovation programs who have a vested interest in proving it wasn't their fault. These are the people who put the "no" in innovation, and the only way to survive their impact is to encourage the organization to tacitly declare that backchannel negativity is equivalent to disloyalty, and more important, to arrange direct patronage from the CEO. You can print this article out and take it to your CEO and say, "This says our innovation program is doomed to fail unless you give me a get-out-of-jail-free card and let me report to you directly."

Sixth, it is vital that you control the narrative about your project, or the narrative will eventually control you. A case in point comes from a behemoth corporation that died a decade ago, where the humble director of a promising innovation program kept saying that he didn't want the credit for the uniquely successful project... until a rival VP simply issued a public press release taking credit for it. That VP had never even attended a single meeting he was invited to during the project's initiation, but when it started to look successful, he pulled a stunt that still graces his resume.

Finally, the seventh key is something called reframing. To reframe is to change the conceptual viewpoint and emotional context of a situation, and thereby changing its entire meaning to your benefit. It's something the Bush administration was masterful at pulling off -- examples include reframing the estate tax as "the death tax" and late term abortion as "partial birth abortion" -- to create a negative emotional charge. In fact, reframing is so important that George Lakoff, the professor of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley who coined the term, contends that reframing is social change. So if you want to master change-iness, you must master reframing -- because it is a core strategic skill and the key to mastering design ethnography.

Every corporate veteran knows that expectations must be managed and aligned with reality -- reframing can help. For example, if the company is gunshy about failures, you need to reframe success as learning fast forward. When they ask, "don't you mean fail fast forward?"... you should reply, "there is no failure, there is only learning... and why are you so focused on failure?" Or, if the investment return horizon at your company looks more like the event horizon of a black hole, you need to reframe your company's definition of success. Essentially, you need to shift the thinking so that the mission for your project becomes all about pushing the business forward into the future, and paint your opponents as the forces that try to hold the company back. The key is to reframing innovation is coming up with positioning that instantly resonates in a very positive way at a gut emotional level.

Returning to the efforts of Team Obama, saddled from day one with Bush's Folly in Iraq (see how I reframed that?) and 100% focused on averting a core meltdown in the financial markets, it's understandable that they simply haven't had the time to deal with something as cutesy as change-iness. Hopefully, this article will miraculously land on a computer screen in the West Wing and they will be convinced that change-iness is vital.

Notes:

You can learn more about reframing by reading George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant" available at Amazon.com.

Actually, you can't imagine how important the skill of reframing is for surviving the next two decades. Read this Harvard Business Review article to get how fundamental the skill of reframing is and will be.

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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