Leadership of Innovation 4 – Lack of Patience and Lack of Boldness

This is the fourth blog in my series on the leadership of innovation

In my last blog, I looked at the human predisposition to innovate (if given the space and freedom to do so) but observed that many organisations put significant unintended barriers or ‘toxins’ in place that stifle innovation. The innovation leader’s main effort should be the removal of these toxins.

From bitter experience, I’ve learned that there are four particularly potent “toxins” that suppress innovation in organisations. This blog will examine two of them.

Lack of Patience
Here is a simple truth (that many organisations forget): you cannot innovate on demand! It takes time and patience before results will be seen. Organisations cannot innovate according to a prescribed, preordained, timeline, however much organisational leaders might want them to. Innovation only happens when organisations are willing to invest time and money in innovation and willing to wait for the results.
Unfortunately, most organisations have no patience. They have short term time horizons and are obsessed with instant gratification; be it in relation to daily share prices, weekly stock figures, monthly earnings or whatever. This is the 21st Century “tyranny of immediacy”, and it can be deadly to an innovation culture. It needs to be countered.

At Inzpire we use this image below, of a black cat waiting by a mouse hole, as a metaphor for the strategic patience that leaders need if they wish to see the flowers of innovation appear in their organisations.

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The cat may wait by the mousehole for hours, for days even, because, eventually, it knows that a mouse will appear – it is just a question of time. All the cat has to do is be there when the mouse shows itself.

But, if the cat is not given the freedom to wait by the mousehole, then it won’t be there when the mouse eventually emerges from it. This means that, not only is there no return (mouse for lunch) but all the initially invested effort (waiting time) is wasted.

Sadly, this is the situation that most innovators, in most organisations, find themselves in – their innovation initiatives are terminated early when they don’t make a sufficiently quick return. Most companies are, deep down, immensely intolerant of anything other than quick success and they do not give their people the freedom to wait for the rewards of innovation to appear.

Isn’t that our job as innovation leaders though? – to believe in our people and to be brave enough to give them the time and freedom to see innovations through to fruition? At Inzpire, we ran our helicopter services division at a loss for several years, but now we train the British Army to fly Apache and Wildcat helicopters using an innovative new training model.

Lack of Boldness
Boldness matters because innovation is risky! If we want innovation to happen, then we have to be prepared to take risks and accept failures, some of which may be painful.

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We have had plenty of failures at Inzpire – and lots of these were very costly – but failure is an essential part of innovation. It is actually the fuel that drives it. A lack of tolerance for failure equates to a lack of appetite for innovation. “Fail fast and fail often” as the wise saying goes, and if you really want the cheese (see picture above) then be prepared to get hurt getting it.

Consider the story of Angry Birds, one of the most innovative and successful video games of all time, which came at the end of a long series of commercial disappointments. The story is laid out below, it says it all really and is a great example of the immense power of a patient and bold approach.

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Organisations and leaders that won’t take risks or accept failures will never see the wild flowers of innovation flourish in their garden. They don’t actually deserve to be successful. They are like the proverbial ship in a harbour- perfectly safe but not going anywhere – and not doing what a ship is really for, which is to sail the risky wild blue ocean outside the harbour walls.

History shows us that remarkable things are rarely achieved without taking risks, so, if we want innovation, boldness is required. That is the inconvenient, unvarnished, truth: we cannot cross the innovation chasm in small timid steps, we have to take a running jump.

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In my next blog, I will look at two other toxins that stifle innovation: lack of trust and lack of ownership.

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