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Courage in the face of the status quo:

An essential value for Innovation Leadership

“It takes courage to be creative. Just as soon as you have a new idea, you are a minority of one.”
—E. Paul Torrance
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.”
—Albert Einstein

This is the third issue of the Innovative Brain since we laid out a set of values for leaders of innovation. We’ve noted that there are many values required for effective leadership, and many values required for regular, business-growing innovation. Yet the set of five key values discussed in the beginning of this series fit into the overlap of both Leadership and Innovation. These are the key values necessary for being a leader – no matter where you sit on the organizational chart – of innovation.

The five key values are (drumroll please!)

Bringing innovation to life from wherever you are in the organization requires five key values:

  • Integrity – Doing what you say you’ll do.
  • Tenacity – Persistently and doggedly pursuing an option or solution until it succeeds and/or others see the brilliance of it.
  • Courage – Being brave about pursuing options that are risky, novel, or untried.
  • Curiosity – Being interested in new ways of doing things, unusual approaches, or things that are outside of your area of expertise. Consciously not knowing the answer, and seeking new ones instead. Consciously learning.
  • Humility – Recognizing that ideas can come from other people, a willingness to change your mind, being able to admit mistakes when you make them, and being willing to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than punishing them.

Our working definition of innovation is “implementing something new that adds value.” We want to focus on that “something new” part, since by definition, if something is new, it’s never been seen before, so it looks strange, unusual, and different. And as you know from your learning about your primitive brain’s reactions to newness, the instinctive reaction to “something new” is most likely to fight it or run from it.

Faced with this likely response, what’s a leader with a new idea likely to do? With courage, they’ll move the idea forward in order to help people see the value of the new idea. Otherwise, they’ll fade back into the corner, and retreat to the comfort of what’s known and what’s been done, which does not create innovation, and certainly is not leadership.

Intellectually, we know this, but in practice something else happens. In her excellent article in the November, 2006, Harvard Business Review, Rosabeth Moss Kanter says, “despite all the research and literature [on innovation over the past 25 years], I still observe executives exhibiting the same lack of courage or knowledge that undercut previous waves of innovation. They declare that they want more innovation but then ask, ‘who else is doing it?’ They claim to seek new ideas but shoot down every one brought to them.” Ouch!

There are many legendary stories of successful people who had courage to promote their ideas in the face of nay-sayers and constant rejection. Mrs. Fields, the goddess of cookies, Ray Kroc, founder of McDonalds, Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, (excuse me, I must be hungry), Chester Carlson inventor of the Xerox machine, Jobs and Wozniak with Apple, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, Louis Bleriot, Karl Benz, and Og the Caveman, who invented the wheel (or at least was the first to patent it). With luck, perhaps you know people in your organization who courageously proposed radical ideas from which people tried to flee or attack. Recent stories in the news point to courage at Kodak when they decided to abandon film and become a completely digital company. Then there’s the courage of the whistle-blowers who cried foul at accounting practices at Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia and others.

Courage in the workplace to bring forth innovation takes many forms. Sometimes it’s the courage to challenge the status quo, other times courage means promoting an idea that failed before (like Citibank and the ATM), and sometimes it means going in a completely new direction (like Blockbuster Video implementing an online and mail alternative to their traditional “bricks and mortar” outlets).

img1A few years ago we worked with a large publishing organization that conducted a week-long executive leadership program focused on having participants craft real solutions to difficult organizational challenges. One participant, an African-American assistant corporate counsel, was charged with working on the challenge of organizational diversity. During dinner early in the week, he confided to a New & Improved facilitator that if, at the end of the week in his presentation to the Chairman of the company, he told the Chairman what he really needed to hear, it might spell the end of the participant’s career. After an extensive coaching conversation, the participant decided to sleep on his decision. The next day, the participant reported to the trainer/coach that he was going to tell the Chairman the difficult news and propose the challenging solutions that needed to be heard. Plus, he had already called the Chairman to tell him who else among the executive team needed to attend his presentation at the end of the week. Talk about a need for courage…and innovative solutions.

While we’re not privy to what happened to the specific solutions proposed, we do know that the participant was subsequently promoted in the organization. Better yet, two weeks after the presentation, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, the Chairman was quoted talking about the importance of the company changing and improving their diversity efforts in order to be more competitive.

That participant put his career on the line for something in which he believed. He could have easily taken the safe path and suggested solutions that were common-place so-called “best practices,” but he decided that much more was required. Was he afraid of being fired? Yes he was. But he also knew that he had a rare chance to cause a shift in the organization, so he courageously took the plunge. And fortunately it paid off. Are there other stories of courage that did not end so well? Of course. And with them come stories of a resultant lack of innovation.

“Courage can be learned. When bomb disposal experts were interviewed on whether they were selected because of their extraordinary courage, the results were clear. Ordinary people, once they gain the technical knowledge, skills, and competence in understanding how to disarm bombs, have little to fear of them. They are courageous in situations which would cause others great fear. Their fear is dissipated as a result of becoming competent.”
—Peter Lowe, in Take Action

Leading Courage

img2As innovation leaders, in addition to modeling courageous behavior ourselves, we’ve got to think about what we need to do to encourage it in others. (Think about that word…encourage: to cause another to be courageous). The truth about all human behavior applies here as well. We must reward courage, even if it is accompanied occasionally by failure, and we must (sad to say) create pain (i.e. punish) when there is not enough courage in our organization.

On the pleasure/reward side of the motivational equation, leaders need to keep their ears to the ground for examples of courageous action, and then find some way to reward it that “gets known” in the company culture. We know a Senior Director at Pfizer who made it known that the key differentiator among a group he was considering for advancement was the willingness of those individuals to challenge him to do a better job of listening to and leading his business unit. The individual that was the most tenacious about giving him feedback, both privately and (in emotionally intelligent ways) publicly, got the advancement.

Equally important to acknowledge (but harder to find for senior leaders because people tend to try to hide them) are examples of well intentioned courageous action that failed to end in “success”. An example of what we mean is illustrated by a senior leader at Fischer Price who threw a party to celebrate a failure in a particular toy. He told his people that the company could not be successful unless it was pushing the edge and that when the edge is pushed, a necessary artifact will be occasional failure. He saw the occasional failure as a sign they were doing things right, and wanted to reward it. A major culture influencing move.

On the pain/punishment side of the equation, leaders are extremely well served by developing a metric that lets them know the “failure to success” ratio that is a sweet spot for their company or industry. Since they know occasional failure is a necessary artifact of innovation, they know that if there is no failure, there is likely to be not enough innovation relative to the competition. Smart leaders will work to find that sweet spot and monitor their companies internal performance against that metric. A few years ago, for example, Bill Gates at Microsoft spoke in stern terms to a large assembly of his people, telling them that the sweet spot was not being hit. That the scrap heap was not big enough, which meant the pace of innovation must be slowing, and that was unacceptable.

So how do you develop courage?

Like trust, you don’t wait for the courage to happen, and then do things that seem risky. You take risky steps and then summon up the courage to pursue them minute-by-minute, day-by-day. While the fear may never go away, the mastery over the fear is what makes courage. Here are a few steps to take to help you develop the “courage” muscle.

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  • Don’t wait, just plunge in! If it seems like a good idea, but you’re not sure what will happen, then start talking up the solution and working with people to help them see the reward of taking the risk.
  • In his book, Peak Performers Charles Garfield says that peak performers are able to ask themselves the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “What would I do if the worst did happen?” You may find that exploring those two questions significantly lowers the perceived risk for you.
  • Say the things no one else is saying…in a way in which they can be heard. If you’ve noticed that there is an “elephant in the living room” that no one else is talking about, then use your most diplomatic manner and best communication skills to point it out with a suggestion for how to do something about it. My new favorite physicist-uttered quote is from Nobel Prize-winner Niels Bohr, who once said to a young physicist, “Your theory is crazy, but it's not crazy enough to be true.”

How to take a risk

Would you like some more suggestions for developing your "courage muscle?" In the book, More Lightning, Less Thunder: How to Energize Innovative Teams, Eckert and Vehar share a list of "How to Take a Risk Today." For a free copy of the list, send an email to: Risk@newandimproved.com and we'll send you the complete list. Just remember to check with your friendly life insurance agent before you do anything physically risky—your policy may not cover things that are really out there.

  • Ask people you trust if you’re crazy. Before you go off the deep end with something completely out there, check in with some of your open-minded associates or friends and see what they say. Ask them for the pluses and opportunities of the solution. And ask them what issues they see and how they’d address them. Sound familiar? It’s our favorite evaluation tool, POINt
  • Check with your manager to see in what circumstances s/he will allow you to disagree. Sometimes, we assume that we can’t say something that might offend the boss, when in actual fact that boss would love to know what others are thinking…but not always. Have a conversation with your manager to find out when it’s appropriate to say something risky (e.g. in a staff meeting, or a one-on-one) and when it’s not appropriate (e.g. in a board meeting).
  • If you know that a risk needs taking, but you find yourself hesitant, plan out your “post-risk reward” ahead of time, so that even if you can’t celebrate success on the content of your courageous move, you can celebrate the fact that the courageous move was made. Truthfully, you’re more likely to do a good job in the moment of your risk taking if you’re thinking forward to licking an ice-cream cone than you will if you’re thinking forward to licking your wounds.

Life takes Courage

Lets’ face it, life and business are both difficult. What makes them easier is breaking down the barriers that seem to limit us. The more barriers we knock down, or go under/over/around, the more facile we get at knocking them down. You might find that the more barriers you overcome with courage, the more you like it, and the more innovation happens. Couragio!! And good luck!

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