The secret innovation skills you need – that are rarely taught

The balance of skills, attitude and experience required 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 soft skills that 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.

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

One simple tool to help you solve any problem

Have you ever had the experience where the same challenges keep coming up again and again? Whether that be in one to ones or in team meetings after a while these things get you down and you lose perspective or energy to solve them.

In my last job I managed a large remote team, we met together about 6 times a year. I used to sit in the day long meetings and note down everyone’s problems and take on the burden of solving them. I left the team meetings drained, stressed and quite honestly depressed. While my team left feeling upbeat and positive because they had unloaded everything. However, their initial relief soon faded when they realised that I wasn’t actually going to solve their problems. Just a quick aside – if this is a challenge you have – read: The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Ken Blanchard.

So, how do you solve this problem and indeed all the problems of your team? During my last three months in the job I took on a new team, a team that had lots of challenges. I knew that I had a short period of time to support them and that taking on their problems wasn’t going to help. I needed to empower them and give them the tools to problem solve.

The team was a small team in a charity responsible for looking after supporters – they were saying they were overworked and couldn’t take on a bigger caseload.  By looking at the problem in a more abstract way you start to unlock the root cause of the problem and frame it differently.

This is where the Ladder of Abstraction comes in. As you go up the ladder the thinking becomes more abstract and down the ladder thinking becomes more concrete. To move up the ladder you ask WHY and down the ladder you ask HOW. It is a useful tool to help describe our language and thoughts and re-label a problem. It can be used in many different ways but I have found it useful for problem solving and evaluating activity.

So how does it work?

You take your problem and start at the bottom of the ladder. For each statement you keep asking WHY. Eventually you get to a root cause of the problem and then you can work your way back down the ladder asking HOW. If you start with how you miss the opportunity to re-label the problem and you take it at face value. So, in the example below the problem is “We do not have enough capacity”, you might jump to – we need to recruit more staff or maybe we need to change a process or reduce workload. But you might be unsure which process to change or simply providing more capacity might not actually solve the problem – exploring the why helps you get to grips with this.

One simple tool to help you solve any problem

By using this simple tool we thought the problem was that the team didn’t have enough capacity but then we realised that we didn’t need to discuss every supporter together but that we could set aside a set time to creatively discuss specific challenges. This also helped the team focus on the solution and not the problem.

I have also used this tool personally to reflect on how a project or piece of work went – this is particularly useful if you feel that the project failed in some way. You could use the ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ method Better If’ method, which is useful. But the Ladder of Abstraction helps you to explore more deeply WHY things went wrong and then HOW you would do things differently in the future. It also makes it less personal because you can look at it objectively from a more abstract viewpoint.

I hope that this simple tool can help you unlock your thinking, solve problems and learn from failure. Used enough, asking WHY becomes second nature.

Emily Petty

 

Emily Petty, a member of the Lucidity Network, is a fundraising and change consultant. She is passionate about helping charities build a relationship led approach to fundraising and supporting them to unlock potential and manage change. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyPetty1 and on LinkedIn

 

If you’d like to develop your thinking and get better results check out the Lucidity Network. We’re open a few times a year. There is more information about joining the Network here

In the meantime get involved at the Lucidity Facebook Community – a free resource for clearer thinking and better results.

The tale of the bent fork and a lesson in collaborative problem solving

You don’t really expect to be drinking white wine in balmy afternoon sunshine in mid-October in the Baltics. But luck (or global warming!) were on our side last month and that’s just what Lucy and I were doing one sunny Sunday afternoon.

Lucy had joined me on one of the legs of my ‘EU Adventure’, a personal travel challenge to visit all the EU member states before the 29th March next year (don’t mention the B word!). We’d had a busy couple of days tramping round Vilnius before a super early start to catch the coach to Riga. After walking round the city for a couple of hours we found ourselves a sunny spot and settled down for something cold, white and dry. I chucked my canvas bag on the spare chair next to.

Clunk

Hearing that my phone had fallen out of my bag I leaned down to pick it up. I couldn’t see it. I shuffled round in my seat. Still no sign of it. I doubled myself down and looked right under my seat. A dawning realisation. “Oh no!” In a ridiculous I-couldn’t-do-that-again-if-I-tried turn of events, my phone had slipped out of my bag and right down through a gap in the decking. Decking that was secured to the main city square and currently home to a few hundred Sunday diners. And there it sat, shining up at us, visible through a gap that not even a child’s fingers would fit through, never mind ours.

We sat there for a while, giggling in disbelief. Then Lucy took control, beckoned over the waitress and over the next 45 minutes or so what played out in a square in Europe was a textbook case study in how different people behave in a crisis.

Waitress: “If this had happened in two weeks’ time it would be OK because we take the decking up on 28th October.”* She leaves saying she’ll come back with equipment.

*This is not useful information to know but in all problem situations there’s always someone who tells you how things wouldn’t be this bad if something else had or hadn’t happened. Stay calm.

Lucy and table neighbour man 1 and table neighbour man 2 have a chat about how the decking is put together. I sit there and look at my phone in the manner of a golden retriever puppy who stares at the garden shed, not quite believing his ball has rolled under there and got lost*. Table neighbour man 2 wanders off.

*There’s always someone for whom it takes a bit longer for the reality of the problem to sink in, who just observes for a while.

Waitress returns with some knives and forks. She drops to her knees and frantically fruitlessly starts stabbing away at the gap. After a few minutes she discards the cutlery saying she has another idea and she’ll be back. She never returns.*

*Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did wrong – there’ll always be people who dive enthusiastically and then get distracted by something else (in her case waitressing, which was the job she was actually there to do and don’t forget business as usual needs to carry on when other problems are being solved.)

Lucy, table neighbour man 1 and I get down on our knees and take over the fruitless stabbing with cutlery. We lose a knife down the gap. Table neighbour man 2 returns and in the manner of someone trying to cut a dodgy deal pulls back his coat to reveal a screwdriver. “Brilliant!” says Lucy. “Oh my God, that’s a ridiculous idea,” thinks me*. Not wanting to be discouraging I say “Oh wow, that’s a good idea but these are Phillips screws and that’s a flat head screwdriver.” Never have I been so grateful for screwdriver knowledge.

*Be risk aware. Never set about solving a problem if solving it will just create an even bigger one! Like damaged public property…

By now we have attracted quite a lot of attention and people around us are watching us, amused, offering words of support and adding the odd pointless observation. “C’mon, let’s forget this and drink our wine,” I say. Table neighbour man 1 retreats, a disappointed look on his face. Lucy and I settle back in our chairs. I start running through the problem. “I’ve been uploading my photos to Instagram as I go, the phone is being upgraded on 3rd November and until then I have a spare handset. I’ll find somewhere to print off my boarding pass for getting home.”*

*Be realistic about the likely impact of the problem and if it’s not that big a deal (or if the problem is unsolvable) just move on to thinking about how to solve the ripple effect problems.

But sometimes, you just don’t want to give up. I got back down and started some more focused cutlery manoeuvres. I managed to get the phone stood up on one side with the aid of a knife on either side. I was trying to concentrate but Lucy was busy throwing ideas out. “When you talk at me I lose my concentration and drop it again,” I said, which was really just a polite way of saying shut up*.

*Try not to tell people to shut up, even if they’re your mate.

And I should have been listening because her idea was great. “You need a grabber,” she said, fashioning one from a fork. We had our solution but there was a final moment of jeopardy! Table neighbour man 1 was back but in his enthusiasm to help he kept knocking my phone over just as it had been leveraged into the upright position and pushing it further away from the gap. I was losing patience and as I opened my mouth I glanced at Lucy – she was shaking her head and giving me ‘don’t snap at him eyes’.*

*Manage yourself and don’t get cross with your most enthusiastic problem solvers, even if they are a bit chaotic occasionally!

Then it all came together and with one of us holding the grabber and the other two holding a knife on either side my phone emerged. We cheered, the tables around us cheered. We were momentarily immersed in that wonderful feeling of solidarity than comes from a successful shared endeavour. And table neighbour man 1 was so happy. He looked puffed up and proud and excited in a way that felt a bit out of proportion, really. And I was so damn relieved that 90 seconds earlier I hadn’t lost my cool and burst his bubble. We ordered two glasses of wine for us and a bottle for his table and we all sat enjoying the last remnants of the sun.

“I’ll write a blog for you when we’re back”, I said as we wandered off, “it will be about collaborative problem solving.”

Catherine Raynor is a director of Mile 91, a story gathering agency for charities and social change organisations. You can find her on Twitter at @catherineraynor and on LinkedIn and she’s particularly enjoying meetings loads of inspiring new people through Lucidity Network so feel free to connect with her.

If you’d like to meet inspiring people like Catherine – join the Lucidity Network. We open for new members a few times a year. Join the waiting list today and you’ll be the first to know when it’s open for new members.

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