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A Few Ideas for Beleaguered Innovators

Keep the faith. That's what I said to a client who is going through a crisis of confidence. Over the summer he had put together the underpinnings of what on paper looked like a promising growth business. But — as is usually the case — the more he analyzes, the more he doubts; the more he shows the results of his analysis to senior leaders, the more questions they ask, and the more they doubt.

If you are doing something that hasn't been done before, careful analysis will by definition highlight reasons to not proceed. Market demand can't be validated. Experts dismiss technological assumptions. Partnership discussions stall. There is always something that causes this crisis of confidence. Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has seen this so frequently that she coined Kanter's Law: Everything can look like a failure in the middle. When you first formulate an idea, excitement peaks. But the more you study that idea, the more you realize the challenges that lie in front of you.

Innovators need a heavy dose of faith. They need to trust their intuition that they are working on a big idea. That faith need not be blind. For example, I combine well-grounded research that highlights patterns of successful innovation and my own field experience into a short checklist of factors that indicate whether or not an idea has potential (in a future post I'll provide more color about using this checklist). I make sure there's a good story behind the idea. Dissenters may poke holes in the story, but at least it's there.

Most importantly, I'm driven by a strong conviction: you can't be certain if you have a good idea or a bad one until you get out of the office. At many corporations, admission to the senior ranks is gained by being right. Promotion-minded executives, therefore, want to remove all the risks from a plan before they proceed. But innovation is not an academic exercise. Patterns guide, but actions decide (catchy title, huh? It's Day 15 of training in The Little Black Book of Innovation).

The best innovators have a bit of innovation bipolarity. In one breath they can tell you why they are going to change the world. In the next they'll tell you about the three risks keeping them up at night and they'll detail a run of experiments that will teach them about their critical assumptions.

You cannot find truth through analysis. You can only find truth through action. If you rest only on analysis to make decisions about innovation, you won't do things that haven't been done before. You will do incremental things. Maybe that's what you are trying to do. But if you are truly trying to disrupt, if you are trying to break from the norm and create exciting breakthrough growth business, there has to be faith involved. Because no amount of analysis will prove to you that something truly innovative is worth doing.

Keep the faith. Try some things. Maybe some of those challenges can't be overcome. But maybe you'll learn something that helps you trip over an even bigger opportunity. After all, as Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Start sweating.

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