Embrace the Tension: Navigating Innovation Paradoxes

Sue Mosby

November 13, 2018

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Business leaders today have spent decades managing for control, predictability, and efficiency to run a successful business. However, an influx of new technology, customer expectations and competitors challenge organizations to innovate in all aspects of their business.

These innovation practices are typically at odds with good business practices: experimental, unpredictable, and chaotic. Conventional and innovation ideologies by nature have opposing goals, risks, and rewards.

Therefore, leaders must not only gain a deep understanding of these innovation principles, but they also need to learn how to implement both methods at once. They must be able to adapt their leadership focus to the environment. It may be uncomfortable at first, but when executives rethink their long-held good business mentality to include the contrasting principles of innovation, they can lead with the right practices, on the right issues, at the right time.

Here are a few of the paradoxes today's leaders must embrace when juxtaposing these two ideologies, with tips on how to navigate each.

Business Leadership Is Evolving. Are You?

Long-held business practices of control, predictability, and efficiency are being challenged by today's market demand to innovate products, services, processes, and even leadership. Although some aspects of conventional business leadership sharply contrast with those of innovation leadership, the trick is to embrace the tension, learning which method to use when.

The conventional business mindset aims to systematically improve products, services, and processes whereas the innovation mindset demands to create new businesses or ways of doing business.

The driving forces behind the conventional mindset are analysis, reasoning, historical data, and mastery of operation. Questioning, observing, empathy, imagining, and experimenting propel the innovation mindset. Conventional business is shortsighted, focusing on the next quarter's results, but innovation is focused on the long term.

When balancing these contrasting ideas, executives should ask themselves: what long-held assumptions about good business and good leadership drive our actions? Are these assumptions still valid, and do they enable or inhibit our organization's success?

Take Action To Innovate!

Most organizations today recognize the need to innovate. However, most of these companies' innovation efforts are limited by deeply held organizational beliefs. These longstanding business dogmas, which have been the holy grail of business success, now impede the ability to innovate. Therefore, executives must embrace the increasing need for an advanced business model that maintains their core values but invites exploration, imagination, and experimentation.

Leaders must inspire their organization to act on the desire to innovate. They must determine when the conventional business concepts of progress have held them back, and take action to inspire innovation.

Innovation Is Coming Through! Get Out of the Way!

Conventional business problem-solving is generally linear, while innovative problem solving seems chaotic by comparison. Organizations should apply both methods of problem-solving for success.

The conventional problem-solving process is as follows: define the problem, identify various solutions, analyze each, and choose one. By contrast, the innovation approach seeks to first deeply understand the problem through exploration and empathy, discover insights that shift your perspective, generate lots of possible solutions, experiment with the most promising solutions before choosing one, and develop experiments to broaden and develop the solutions.

Leadership should apply the conventional process to issues that will reap a solution from it, and use innovative problem-solving for ill-defined, complex problems with high stakes.

Wake Up. You Already Know What to Do.

While conventional and business mindsets seem different, innovation can largely be managed conventionally. Instead of thinking of innovation in broad generalities, leadership should treat it like any other part of the business. Establish goals, objectives, and a process.
Determine who is in charge and hold that person accountable.

When setting goals, executives should ensure that the emphasis of the goals is on the inputs to drive innovation, not the outputs, as the outputs are unpredictable by nature. The process will also be different from other business functions and will require the intentional development of leaders and teams to achieve results effectively.

Be Courageous.

The conventional business mindset isn't going anywhere. Although innovation leadership seems to be opposite conventional leadership practices, the two can co-exist, and together will build a prosperous future for your organization.

Sue Mosby is the founder and CEO of Infinium, an innovation consultancy. For over 30 years, she helped senior leaders capture new growth opportunities, imagine new products and service lines, and build innovation competency in their organizations.

Her ability to merge creativity and design thinking enables her clients to build the mindset, skillset, toolset, and process to succeed. Sue holds a design degree from the University of Missouri and is a former co-owner of a 60-person architectural firm. Sue is a certified innovation mentor from iVia; certified innovation mentor program founded by the University of Notre Dame Executive Education, Whirlpool, and Beacon Health Systems.

She is the faculty coordinator for the program and serves on the national iVia Steering Committee. As a recognized leader in innovation and change leadership, Sue is sought as a keynote speaker and consultant.

Her industry experience includes financial services, consumer products, packaging, engineering, technology, and manufacturing companies. Some of Sue's clients include H & R Block, Samsung, Sprint, Black & Veatch, and Wells Fargo.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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