The secret innovation skills you need – that are rarely taught

Wake up, kick ass, repeat

The balance of secret innovation skills, attitude and experience you require depends a bit on what innovation means to your organisation. Sometimes you need to be a product development manager, sometimes a culture change manager, more often both, and on occasion, once you’re in post it’s for you to interpret what the organisation needs and what the senior leadership want – which are often different things. Then there’s the innovation brief that makes my heart sink, ‘we want to innovate and change and disrupt – but we want to be sure it will work’, setting an innovation manager an impossible challenge from the outset.

Sound familiar?

However you choose to approach innovation in your business two things are consistent regardless of what sector or industry you work in.

  • Innovation is about spotting an unmet need or solving a problem. It’s about generating ideas and implementing solutions to make life better for your target audience (and that might be customers, clients and employees).
  • Not all of your ideas or innovations will work.

This means that an innovation manager has to be a lot of things; a diplomat and a dictator, a negotiator with a bloody-minded streak, an ideas person and a completer-finisher, a business analyst and a dreamer, candid and kind, a risk taker who likes a safe bet and possess both gravitas and humility.

The secret skills of innovation are often at opposite ends of a spectrum. You have to be well versed in contrast and contradictions and be able to flex between them in a blink of an eye.

Here are my top tips to thrive in the contradictory role of an innovation manager;

1.   Exude confidence in your approach and also confident vulnerability about what you don’t know. Help people to feel comfortable with diving into the unknown. Help people to learn that it’s OK not to know the answers, and that is part of ‘doing innovation.’

2.   Get a chronic case of ‘toddler syndrome’ and keep asking ‘why?’. Don’t settle for the ‘way things are done here’. Challenge ‘the way we do things here’ at every opportunity and help others to do the same.

3. Become very self-aware, what assumptions or stories do you have that prevent you from doing something new? Keep challenging yourself as well as others to unlearn what you know. Ask, ‘What if we had to start from zero – what might we do differently?’

4.   Be charming and disagreeable. Open up discussions, encourage different points of view and alternative ways of thinking, and do it in a way that others find enchanting.

5.   Take innovation very seriously and also not seriously at all at the same time. You’re looking for an important breakthrough which is serious business, yet our best thinking occurs when we are relaxed and even more so when we’re in a playful mindset.

6.   Be sensitive and thick-skinned – sensitive to the needs of your colleagues and partners. Remember that many people fear change, so tune into and be mindful about how your colleagues are feeling, yet at the same time focus on the needs of your audience, the people that you are innovating for, which sometimes means forging on through despite everything if you are going to deliver on your brief.

7.   Fall deeply in love and be fickle – to innovate, to introduce something new, you have to fall in love to have the passion to keep going to overcome barriers when things get difficult (because things will get difficult). You also have to be fickle and prepared to fail fast and drop your idea if it doesn’t work.

8.   Move fast and slow – turn your ideas into reality as quickly as you can. Don’t wait for perfect and a big launch, involve your stakeholders and your customers as early as possible which can sometimes slow down progress but the insight you gain will be worth the reduction of speed.

9.   Smile, (even if inside you are crying) and be respected for making good decisions and getting the job done rather than being known for being ‘nice’.

10. It’s OK to cry, to be vulnerable and for the idea not to work. The important thing is to share why not and what next so that everyone involved can learn.

11. Focus on why making change happen is important and lead by example. Help to shift the organisational culture to help people have the courage to try, followed by the tenacity to learn from failure and give it another go.

Those secret innovation skills are often called soft skills. They are rarely taught, they are skills that you learn by trial and error, and that are hard to articulate on a job application. These are the skills that make you a successful innovator. At Lucidity we run training, provide coaching and consultancy on the ‘soft’ skills you and your organisation require to succeed at innovation. If you’d like some help perfecting them then get in touch at hello@lucidity.org.uk.

You might also like the Lucidity Network – a place for people pushing to make change happen, a place to learn, a place to share and a place to connect. Check it out and join us here.

Why watching this movie can help solve your staffing problems…

Like many millions of others, this weekend was planned around a cinema trip to see Avengers: Endgame – the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But as well as the usual dose of superhero satisfaction, I came away thinking how Kevin Feige could teach us more than a thing or two about how to build and retain successful teams.

Feige is the President of Marvel Studios, who in the last 10 years has released 22 hit films grossing over $16billion – the highest grossing film series of all time[1].  This, from a franchise that spent previous decades hovering on the brink between limited success and failure.  Who recalls the 1986 Marvel ‘classic’ Howard the Duck which lost $21m after being panned by the people that mattered, the fans, despite being produced by a living film legend – George Lucas! Or 2003’s Daredevil which was considered so disappointing, its leading star Ben Affleck said: “[Batman’s] the movie I want to do. I want to be a part of that…I hate Daredevil so much”[2]

So from a struggling company, to a stellar performer: what on earth (or if we are seriously embracing the MCU), what on the ‘multi-verse’ has Feige done to drive this sort of turnaround, that we too can learn from?

Plan ahead…

Back in 2007, when my daughter was still trying to choose between Tinky-Winky and La-La and hadn’t even heard of superhero’s, Kevin Feige had a plan for how exactly she (and millions of other teens) were going to spend this weekend. Before the first Iron Man film had made a penny, Feige had planned out not just the next two or three movies, but a decade of interwoven narrative across all 22 films and hit TV series. His plan embraced the existing cohort of superhero movie watchers from 2007, and the future generations of film goers who could be tempted into to MCU.

And isn’t this the job of every great manager? You are employed to see the bigger picture, to know where you’re going, to plan the staffing and skills you’ll need not just now, but for the organisation you want to become.  I’ve seen plenty of organisations with a three-year or five-year plan, but how many organisations do you know with a ten-year plan?  Not many.  And of these forward looking few, how many have a clearly defined staffing plan built into this vision of the successful teams of the future?  Well, I’m struggling to think of one (though excited to talk to you if this is how you are planning!).  Yet, we all accept that our staff are usually our most expensive asset, and the defining difference between success and failure.  And still we tend to have better long-term plans for the office furniture than we do for staff development.

So isn’t it time to learn from Feige, to start planning 10 years out for what we think our people will be doing.  And of course the plan will flex and change along the way, but that doesn’t change the need for a long-term vision. If you are just focussed on your staffing needs today, you’ll never be ready to deliver a future vision.

Be a superfan…

Yes we all know it is possible to just turn up and do the job: no heart, soul or passion required…but why would you want to? If you aren’t invested in what you do emotionally then why would your staff be! Kevin Feige has made no secret that he is a HUGE fanboy. He has been preparing to be President of Marvel Studios from the moment he first sneaked his torch into bed to read comics after lights out. This is a man who still collects the ticket stubs from every film he goes to. He LOVES what he does and this passion is infectious. Many of the A-listers who have become part of the MCU reference Feige’s passion for the project as a key draw:

“When I found that out about him, and seeing the familiar excitement and inner light that comes from a huge fan speaking about how much they love the whole magical world…that really speaks a lot to who he is…I was like YES!” – Scarlett Johansson[3]

Those of us lucky enough to have experienced being led by someone with passion have seen how it injects energy in successful teams and motivates everyone to be their best.  And with staff identifying ‘belief in what we do’ as a key management skill; it isn’t just about getting the right people, it’s about getting them to stay.  It’s said that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses and the research backs this up: 61% of those defining their relationship with their boss as ‘bad’ are actively looking to leave this year[4].  So, if you want to attract and keep the top talent in your industry, then try communicating your passion for what you do. If some of your staff don’t share it, fine, these are the ones who are likely to move on anyway.

Don’t plan around the hero’s you don’t have…

By the time Feige started to design the MCU many of the rights to its key characters had been sold off years before when Marvel was in financial trouble. So he faced the prospect of trying to build the most successful movie franchise ever, with a load of second tier characters. But rather than focus on what he didn’t have, Feige put his energy into those he did:

“Yeah, the “B-list characters”… I never really thought that because I knew that Iron Man was really cool and Hulk was arguably, next to Spider-Man, the biggest character we had. The goal was…to make the best Iron Man film we could, and make the best version of Hulk.” Feige [5]

Feige is sharing with us one of the most important lessons here: whatever the quality of the team you have, these are the people you’ve got. Moaning about needing great staff in order to make your targets isn’t going to help. Instead focus on how to make your team great. So, your task as a manager is to work out where to put your energy. Which team members may not be at the top right now but have the potential, or the right attitude, and with training and effort could be your superstars? Investing your time in them now can give you an extraordinary return down the line. And if there are people in the team who are never going to deliver then don’t ignore it.  Do something about it, because whilst performance management is no one’s idea of fun, moving on might be their opportunity to find a role they love and your chance to recruit a new star.

Focus on the individual 

All MCU fans have a favourite ‘origin story’, the films where we are introduced to a character and watch them develop their superpowers.  For Feige it’s Black Panther, but the point is he puts time, love and attention into every origin story.  This is no mean feat when you remember he has been holding that ten-year plan in his head throughout.  He knows where the whole over-arching story is going, yet he has time to focus on each individual character’s storyline, and how they develop over time.  And this is the point; each character is allowed to individually develop within the Marvel universe.  They make mistakes.  They learn. They become better superheros. As Feige says: “I was never cynical about sequels…I was always excited to see how characters I loved would grow and change”[6]

Feige knows it’s important because fans care about this sort of detail.  The little things matter.  And that’s just as true for our staff.  Yes, they want to be part of a great team and contribute to a massive organisational vision.  But they also want to know you can pick them out in a line-up.  So make sure you know the detail; remember to praise individually, comment if they’ve tried to do something new – even if it’s not been successful or everyone else finds it easy – recognise the effort of the individual.  And invest in each person, don’t try and squeeze them into some HR driven organisational development plan that sets out what and when they can learn.  Work out what works for them…and remember it.

A team is stronger together…

Embedded within the MCU are the much-loved ensemble films: the Avenger series where characters across the MCU come together to fight a common enemy.  Those new to the franchise might struggle to keep up when viewing one of these ensemble movies.  They are fast paced with a cast of (what seems like) thousands all of whom seem to be leads and have story arcs that impact on the final resolution.  But what might seem confusing from the outside is actually a team effectively integrating under pressure to deliver a positive outcome.

One of my bosses (a huge Marvel fan) would often call an: “Avengers Assemble”. This was our organisational shorthand for the need for the team to come together to jointly tackle an urgent situation. Sometimes this was a real organisational crisis, sometimes it was when one team member needed the support of others. But it was a recognition of the strength of bringing the team together; uniting the individual skills and talents that each member of your team has into a superhero problem solving squad.  So whether you see yourself as a Kevin Feige or a Nick Fury[7], what are you doing to get your staff to pull together towards a common goal?

And accept the Endgame…

So Feige’s plan always includes an ending, and Avengers: Endgame is it (though for hardcore MCU fans I’m aware this is actually the end of phase three). The end of a 10-year journey, and saying goodbye to some much-loved characters (can’t say who as Thanos has demanded my silence!). Like all great managers, Feige knows that the strongest successful teams have change and growth built into them. When you are surrounded by fantastic high performing staff you should be planning what happens next – ensure successions plans are in place for everyone.  So if a key staff member is ready to leave you can afford to be gracious. Accept this phase has come to an end and help them move on successfully – if you do they will become advocates for you and your organisation, making the next round of recruitment tons easier.

But it’s never really over…

Feige has already started to reveal highlights from his next five-year plan. It includes new superheros, plenty more special effects and probably many more box-office breaking films. This type of long-term success doesn’t happen by chance. It comes from long-term thinking and planning, staff investment and development, doing the day-job but never forgetting that your team are looking to you to help them see (and be inspired) by the future.

So if you are looking for some help with your staffing issues and building successful teams, why not channel a bit of Marvel this week?  There are 22 good films I could recommend…

 

Vanessa Longley has worked in Fundraising and Communications for over 20 years and is currently researching creative leadership in the charity sector. Her favourite Marvel movie is Doctor Strange.

 


[1] Williams, Trey (6 May 2018). “How Marvel Became a $16 Billion Franchise: Fandom, Cribbing From Comics and Kevin Feige. TheWrap.

[2] Mccluskey, Megan (14 December, 2016). “Ben Affleck on hating Daredevil”. Time Magazine

[3] Joanna Robinson (6th December, 2017). “An extended conversation with Kevin Feige” Vanity Fair.

[4] Barna Group (18th February, 2015).  “The different impact of good and bad leadership”.

[5] Joanna Robinson (6th December, 2017). “An extended conversation with Kevin Feige” Vanity Fair.

[6] Rianne Houghton (12th June, 2018). “Marvel Studio boss reveals best MCU films”. DigitalSpy

[7] For non MCU nerds, Fury is the head of a secretive government sanctioned organisation SHIELD forming strategic alliances with superheros to protect the planet and our current existence.  I could go on…but it’s probably best I don’t!

Leadership lessons from Gary Gower – a wire fox terrier

Gary

I was worried about money, the huge responsibility of keeping something alive and having to change my lifestyle – no more last-minute trips or evenings out on a whim. Close friends and family gave me an ultimatum ‘set yourself a deadline and either get a dog or stop talking about it’ Fair enough if I was bored it’s no surprise that everyone was too.

I remember having a dog as a child; a black Labrador called Barnaby (I was proud to have named him after my favourite TV programme Barnaby the Bear). I remember him being a best friend (especially in my early teenage years). Barnaby knew all my angst and he was an excellent listener, never judged, completely trustworthy and was just ‘there’. I felt safe when Barnaby was around. I remember long walks, day trips to the beach, how he forgave me for painting his nails, how he’d know when you were sad and lick your hands (or feet) and he was a lovely, well-behaved gentle soul.

I wanted a dog to hang out with, to go for long walks with, to give me a distraction from work. When you work for yourself and love what you do it’s very easy to work all the time and I was falling into that trap.

When I told people I was thinking about getting a dog they’d say ‘you’ll have to walk him every day’.  No problem. Walking is how I get my thoughts together, plan my day and keep my sanity in check. I felt like I was the only person walking around Alexandra Palace every day without a dog.

Introducing Gary

To be honest I wasn’t quite prepared when Gary arrived aged 12 weeks in March 2018. The first thing he did was a poo under the kitchen table. I was only a puppy myself when Barnaby came to live in my house so I missed the hours of standing in the garden in the rain toilet training, non-stop play, leg humping and the chewed shoes, books and laptop cables.

Gary is a wire fox terrier. He is now one year old. Here he is.

Gary the dog
Gary the wire fox terrier

The fox terrier breed is known for being curious (when Gary arrives anywhere new he needs to check everything, and when he goes somewhere he’s been before he needs to check everything is still in the same place). They are independent – all the other puppies stuck close to their owners in puppy training class, if I’d let Gary off the lead he’s have headed out to explore for himself on his own terms. They are also stubborn, if they decide something, it’s a cunning game and a battle of wills to get them to come around to your way of thinking.

Let’s face it, If I was a dog, I’d likely be a Wire Fox Terrier.

I’ve never apologised so much or felt like such a giant failure as when I’ve been training Gary. He’s taught me a lot about dogs and inadvertently has made me think more about human behaviour and how to get the best from people. This is what Gary’s taught me;

Patience and perseverance – people don’t necessarily understand what you want first time. It’s not because they’re being obstructive.  Is up to you to try different tactics and to keep going until they understand.

Reward good behaviour – if someone does a good job tell them. Make it abundantly clear that they nailed it so they are more likely to do it again.

Tone of voice and body language is more important than words. Professor Albert Mehrabian‘s research cited that 7% of communication is in the words that are spoken, 38% in the way that the words are said and 55% of communication is in facial expression. If I get the tone of my voice and my facial expression right, the words are less important. If Gary’s running off and I call him and I sound and look cross he’s not likely to come back in a hurry. If I call him like he’s missing out of the best party of the decade if he doesn’t do a U-turn, I have more success.

Forward plan and avoid bad situations – it’s possible to minimise bad outcomes, for example, I’ve learned that if there’s a children’s party in the park with lots of small people waving chicken twizzlers that we go a different route and avoid the likely chaos of Gary being an unwanted guest. Can you simply avoid some of your potentially bad situations?  

Other people’s treats are nicer than your own – Gary wants something because someone else has it. My human example of this is when you are employed to do a job, you present your expertise/business case to the board.  They are not sure. You call in the consultants to do the same presentation. The board agree and are delighted. If you get the result you want it doesn’t matter how you get there. (even though it’s annoying)

See the situation from someone else’s perspective – no one sees the world in the same way that you do – and even if they do how will you ever know? Not to get all philosophical here, but you have your own unique lens on the world, never assume that anyone else sees a situation in the same way that you do. Gary sees me running about trying to put him on his lead as enormous fun. I see it as massively annoying, embarrassing and inconvenient.

Keep it simple – humans are excellent at over-complicating things. When things are getting too complicated and I’m trying to make it simple I ask myself ‘What would Gary think?’ It might not get the right answer, usually it’s  ‘if its fun do it, if it’s not don’t’ but it helps put my mind in a different train of thought.

Ask for help – if you ask for help people are generally kind and will offer it. You don’t have to take all the advice, but listen, and make the best decision for you in your unique situation with your unique perspective.

Dogs bark at things they don’t understand – and so do humans. It can be easy to become anxious or defensive when we don’t understand. If you don’t understand be brave enough to ask for clarity.

There is no one right answer – you just have to take the information you’ve got and do what you think, do the best you can, learn and keep going.

And if that wasn’t enough Gary makes me laugh every single day, sometimes joyous laughter and sometimes in frustration, but thanks to Gary I’ve made some new friends, walk my daily 10,000 steps, switch off from work more often and have a different perspective on many situations.  And something surprising happens every day.

You can check out Gary for yourself on Instagram – he’s Garygowerwft

Make failure your friend

make failure your friend

Failure is one of those topics where there’s a big gap between knowing and doing. Rationally we know that it’s OK if we are doing our best, to fail, because by failing we learn valuable lessons that lead us to success in the future.

Yet, failure is not rational. Failure is highly emotional. Remember the last time that you failed at something that was important to you. How did it feel? Most likely it felt horrible. I know that if I’ve failed badly I almost can’t bear to talk about it and dissect it until a bit of time has passed and the pain has resided.

However, as Richard pointed out, it’s the ability to talk about the failure when you are still feeling it that has the potential to lead to the biggest learning. Like with many things its easier said than done, you need to have people to talk to in confidence about failure and work in an environment where you don’t fear the repercussions of failure.

Here are my eight take-aways from the interview

Make failure your friend and work on reframing your mindset on how you view failure. It’s not the enemy to be avoided. If treated with respect, failure can be your friend.

Tell stories of the failures in your organisation to help others learn. Tell stories to all your audiences, customers, supporters, internal teams. The learning from failure is more readily remembered and more importantly implemented as a story than facts and figures.

Set a BHAG. A Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This goal works best when it is organisation wide, however, if setting the organisation’s BHAG is not in your remit set your team one – or set an individual one. Setting a BHAG forces you to think differently. If your goal is to double sales you approach the task very differently than if your goal is to increase sales by 5%. A BHAG also shifts expectations. You are all working to smash your BHAG, however, if you fall short, it’s highly likely that you will have done better than the 5% incremental change.

Like Oscar Wilde said; ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars’

Give yourself and your team permission to fail. This is also easier when you have a BHAG. You can’t just tell people they have permission, you have to lead by example. For example, you might share learning from failure as a regular agenda item at team meetings. Everyone should have something to share, after all, if no one is learning from failure they are not pushing themselves hard enough to reach that BHAG. BHAG’s don’t just achieve themselves.

Go for a walk. The single best way I’ve found to clear my head, think straight and be more creative is to go for a walk. It can help you think through problems or if you take a colleague it can help you talk through problems.

With hindsight, Hindsight is a great thing. If I could choose a superhero power I’d be ‘Hindsight Hero’. EVERYTHING is easier with hindsight but we don’t have a crystal ball so the best we have is learning from failure. Your learning from failure is someone else’s hindsight – but only if you’re brave enough to share it.

Back to mindset. Start to frame problems in a more positive way. Rather than ‘This doesn’t work’ or ‘We tried that and it didn’t work’ ask ‘How might we make this work?’

And finally, construct your failure resume. List your career steps from the failures that have led you to where you are now.

The interview with Richard Turner can be watched at the Lucidity Network which is a pick and mix of online and offline learning and connection to a dynamic network of people that can help you. We’re open for new members a few times a year. Join the Lucidity Community Facebook group to get in the Lucidity groove for clearer thinking and better results and be the first to hear when the Lucidity Network is open for members.

Why do we still hide failure?

When I told some ten ‘Health Product People’ in ‘Conference Room One’ that they had to be able to make mistakes — they paid attention.

This elite group of government and NHS digital product developers and leaders had met to share a presentation on methods to evaluate the progress and direction of their digital projects, and to learn from the experience of the leader.

The leader had made the point that if it became necessary, one must, and he had ‘pulled the plug’ on an expensive digital development project because it was clear that the direction was not leading to achievement. This was clearly a difficult thing to do, with the ‘press’ so keen to ‘be at their heels’, but he and ‘they’ had pulled the project.

Hiding failure is still major in our culture, in the NHS, in academia and the corporate world and social sector. So what those specialists were advocating was not only hugely important but still often incredibly difficult for hidden cultural reasons, like scapegoating, losing face or your job … They needed to be reassured of doing the right thing, and aware of why such decisions may seem to be SO difficult.

I have been demoted for whistleblowing in my career and seen many examples of inconvenient issues being covered up, but I could have told of when, in 1970, the senior medical officer of a blue chip company had given an injection incorrectly — and I had needed to tell him.

The effect of the too-quick-effects of that injection would probably have given the patient a fever for a few hours, but not done any major harm, other patients should be spared that experience! In the 1950’s I had seen similar doses of the same vaccine used to induce fever in patients with skin conditions.

I was shocked when he reacted by urgently telling me not to tell anyone about what had happened. That anyone, especially a senior doctor, should be so afraid as a result of someone knowing that he had made a mistake is wrong.

Fortunately, especially among major corporate digital developers, having to halt a development is recognised as being better, cheaper than trying to keep it going when it should be stopped. The press, unfortunately, still enjoy publicising expensive failures, and the public sector is especially exposed to ‘the press’.

The culture is being changed, it has to be.

There are major efforts to make it safe for staff to acknowledge mistakes in health care, without that, improvements are delayed. Scapegoats are still far too common as was the case with Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba who recently won her appeal against being struck off. No one should have to suffer so unjustly.

We who have to make decisions in our work will make mistakes. I hope that we will have leaders who will be constructive when we acknowledge that. In any event, there may be HR people or other professionals and in Lucidity Network we have a group of supportive and experienced professionals to consult.

If we lead our organisations, can we offer suitable supportive environment for our people to ‘fail quickly’ and ‘safely’ and move on? What is the policy and is it robust enough? Successful organisations have such policies and practice them.

If you would like to be part of a network of dynamic professionals, making mistakes and making improvements check out the Lucidity Network. It’s a pick and mix of online and offline practical tools and advice as well as access to a dynamic network of expertise to help you take the lead in getting the results you want. We are open to members several times a year. Sign up here to join the waiting list. 

Genevieve Hibbs

Genevieve M Hibbs former: nurse (general and occupational health), midwife, Christian missionary, lecturer, elected councillor, mayor and a member of the Lucidity Network.