The Strongest Inhibitor of Innovation is Contentment

How Savvy Business Managers Avoid Being Relegated to the Herd

If you accept the way it is done, because it has always been done that way, then all you will ever be able to do is what has already been done. Form followed seeks to repeat what has been done; while innovation followed seeks to find what could be done. Innovation is the way to lead the herd, not be part of it.

Examine any successful company that has fallen behind or failed. Most often you will discover that failure came, not because they stopped doing what they had been doing, but precisely because they were content to keep doing what they had been doing. In a word, they failed to innovate.

In business innovation is the only way for leaders and companies to respond to the evolution of how things should be done. In nature, all living species must learn to evolve and adopt or become extinct. So too in business, the failure to innovate, to evolve and adapt, is a death knell.

If failure to innovate is seen as the curse of ongoing business success, why, then, don’t all business leaders make innovation a fundamental plank in their business culture? Simple. Many managers claim to understand the importance of innovation, but in reality, they desperately fear it since innovation means to do what has not been done. The truth is, one cannot be innovative without being out there and alone; the extent of the aloneness depends on the extent of the innovation. The more innovative the act, the more completely alone one is.

That’s why most managers find it is easier and certainly safer to do what they have always done or worse,  joining the herd and following what others are doing. Recognizing and embracing innovation is a risk, but not nearly so much as rejecting it. As Will Rogers said, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.”

Kodak Offers Valuable Lessons

It has become a cliché now, but Kodak is the classic example of a company that Kodakwas penalized with a loss of relevance for its failure to successfully innovate. The company was, for decades, the very icon of photographic imagery, the epitome of corporate branding: Kodak was photography. However, when the innovation of digital photos began to take hold, Kodak obstinately clung to its core business of film photography. The result was that Kodak became an afterthought and a follower, not a leader.

The irony is that Kodak was actually one of the first innovators in the development of digital photography and even today the company holds many of the most important patents in the field. Kodak’s failure came not from the inability to innovate, but from a failure to follow through on that creative promise and firmly implement its innovations. As John Maynard Keynes noted, “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” The management of Kodak was content with what they had done and this mentality prevented them from using the innovations that their own company had developed as a way to do more than they had done. As a result, Kodak ceased to lead the herd and became subsumed by it.

Companies reject innovation for the very reason they should embrace it. Innovation means being different and most managers fear being different. Instead, like a pack of shrill eunuchs, they seek the perceived comfort and security of the “peer group,” rather than embracing the risk and challenge of being out front. They are, in essence, in love with the past and fearful of the future; and with that attitude they forfeit the future to others, because the future belongs to those who get there first.

A More Contemporary Example

Recently, I was witness to just this type of diminutive mind-set regarding innovation. A large investment group – with some investments in insurance – asked me to help them explore how they might play a larger role in the insurance industry. These were well-intended, smart people, but the discussions were frustrating, both for the group and me.

Before making their initial investments in the insurance industry, they completed a thorough and detailed due diligence into how the industry operated and its products. Now that they had jumped in and purchased a couple of insurance companies, they wanted to learn how to increase the growth of the companies and play a larger role in the industry. This is where we ran into problems.

This group was literally looking for me to tell them how their companies could do better by doing more of what the competition was doing. Believe it or not, their idea of innovation was to research the best-selling products of other companies and copy them. It was like speaking to the dead when I suggested they should look for what the other companies are not doing, and do that.

When the idea of developing and offering different and innovative products was brought up, the reaction was traditional. To the tune of “everyone does it this way,” I heard – “That won’t work.” “How do you know it will work?” “Why aren’t other companies doing this?”

This group had made large investments in these companies and they were seeking to mitigate their risk by learning what other companies were doing and doing the same. What this group did not realize was that the biggest risk they were taking was the risk of not being different. One does not lead by following, but by innovating.

And the Moral of the Story is …

There are a myriad excuses – especially in difficult economic times – that can be offered as reasons for a failure to have an innovative mind-set: innovation is long term, it is expensive, its results are uncertain, it takes focus off what is already being done successfully and it may require the cost and complexity of changing existing systems. Exactly!

The fallacy in this thinking is that innovation will come, whether we want it or not. The French were content to hide behind their Maginot Line, thinking they were safe from German invasion. They were safe from the way things had been, but due to innovation, they were vulnerable to the way things had become; and paid a dear price for that mentality. The true discomfiture that comes with a failure to seek innovation is not that one will be left behind, but that one will be left out.

Those with an innovative mind-set operate in the present but live for the future. They incessantly challenge themselves and their companies to seek out what has not been done and ask why it can’t be done. Better yet, they relentlessly search for the way to do what has not been done. For them, their contentment is their discontent with what has not been done.

The Greatest Threat to Personal and Business Success—is Success

Successful Leaders Fail When They Stop Doing the Things that Made Them Successful in the First Place

Some months back, the media has besieged us with countless stories about the imperfect personal lives of two of the best known sports stars in the country – Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Aside from the titillating (no pun intended) aspect of their personal failures, they have something else in common. Once they achieved success, they moved away from their core values.

Tiger Woods admitted publicly that when reached the status and success he had worked so hard to attain, that he fell into an attitude of perverted entitlement that moved him away from the values that had helped him become successful. While Roethlisberger didn’t publicly admitted to his problems, many of his current and former teammates in Pittsburgh have talked of how he changed after winning his first Super Bowl.

Roethlisberger’s teammates point to a young rookie who came to the Steelers fully dedicated to doing what needed to be done to achieve success. He was first to practice and last to leave. He exhibited the qualities of a leader and quickly became one, while still being “one of the guys” for his teammates. But they also point out that he began to change once he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Soon he was last to practice and first to leave. He became aloof from the team and instead of being one of the guys, thought he was the only one. He acted as though he was entitled to be treated differently from the rest of the team. According to comments by teammates he began to be derisively referred to as a “bar-hopping pied piper.”

I have written on the subject of maintaining success – once it has been achieved – but the latest examples of Woods and Roethlisberger justify a refresher. Those of us who seek success in life or career can learn from these examples.

It is not just the high-profile celebrity that can exhibit self-destructive tendencies once success has been achieved; while not so visible, such attitudes can – and often do – afflict business leaders and companies. We work so hard to achieve success that we sometimes forget that it takes even more focus and commitment to maintain success achieved.

The key to maintaining success is being alert to losing success. Success has its own way of weakening the very behavior that achieved it. Any organization or anyone who achieves success must be willing to ignore the success achieved. Only by doing so is success maintained over time.

It’s a fact that more people rise from failure than survive success. That’s because it is more difficult to survive success than failure. Success is a rare commodity that few are prepared to deal with. When you are successful, you step out from the crowd and accomplish what many talk about but few do. That is well and good, but when you do succeed – you have to deal with the consequences of success. This is where both Woods and Roethlisberger failed and where those of us who are lucky to achieve success must be always vigilant.

What Went Wrong?

Why is it that so many business leaders and successful companies manage to fail the test of long-term success so consistently? Some say changed markets are to blame. Others point to increased competition, technology advances, reduced productivity, product obsolescence, even government interference as the source of the corporate tailspin. But, these are superficial excuses that highlight only the symptoms of the real illness.

After eliminating the suicidal acts of greed, blatant fraud and inbred incompetence from the list of culprits, there is a simple explanation for the failure of successful individuals and companies. Successful leaders and companies start to fail when they stop doing the things that made them successful in the first place.

Successful businesses and the executives who run them become comfortable, lazy, complacent and less tolerant of risk and innovation. Many fall prey to the illness of entitlement. They lose the very culture that produced their initial success: Doing the right thing at the right time, and doing it first, fast and often.

Fortunately, there are some simple and obvious clues that will help us identify if we and our company may be in danger of risking loss of the success we worked so hard to achieve.

Some of these signs may be when:

  • We find we are too busy to take the time to do the little things we took the time to do in the past.
  • We begin to define our success predicated on what we have done rather than what we could do.
  • We begin to feel that getting better is not as important as keeping what we have.
  • We discover our actions formerly threatened competitors but now the actions of competitors threaten us.
  • We become more concerned with what we get for ourselves than what we can give to others.
  • We begin to view process and procedure as more important than performance and progress.

And the Moral of the Story …

Never lose sight of this one thought – If you are not making history – you are history!

Those who maintain a pattern of continued success have a common trait – they see success as something to build on – not rest on. For them success becomes a nagging voice in the back of their mind that reminds them of how difficult it was to achieve and how much will be lost unless they continue to do the things that allowed them to come out one top, again and again.

They have a mind-set to continue to make history. They recognize the responsibility they have to build on the success achieved. They know their methods have allowed them to make history in the past and that gives them the opportunity to make history in the future.

If, as you achieve success, you adopt this philosophy, then you will accomplish what many who have achieved success fail to do. You will create the opportunity to maintain and even grow your success by never forgetting to do what you did to achieve success. Hopefully, Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger will be able to learn from taking success for granted and be more successful because of it, but one thing is certain – we can!

Why is it so Difficult to ask “WHY?”

Curiosity is Fast Becoming a Lost American Trait

The nature of a human is to be curious. No living being exhibits more curiosity than a young child. The most often used word in the vocabulary of the young is “why.” Without curiosity there is no way to learn and no way to make things better. America is in trouble today because we have lost our love of curiosity. A society that succeeded based on the celebration of curiosity seems to have become impatient with it and is structured to smother this crucial desire to know and learn.

It starts early. The most often heard answer to a child’s desire to know why something is, is “because.” In school, attention is given to those who have “problems,” but the one who exhibits curiosity is considered a problem. The structure of schooling is “rote and repeat” not “question and challenge.”

Once out of school and into the job market the effort to suppress curiosity is accelerated. There are rules and regulations for all activities. Those who have the temerity to ask “why” are told, “Because that’s the way we have always done it.” The attitude is that lumps are much more easily managed than bumps. The way to get by (even to advance) is to show compliance and complicity with “the way it is.

Those who question and challenge – and become bumps in the road – are viewed as a threat to the status quo and maintaining the status quo is the ultimate objective. The greatest detriment to getting better is the belief that what is, is already the best. Change is feared more than innovation is valued and since curiosity stimulates change, it must be eradicated. Too often the curious worker is told, “Don’t rock the boat.” Sameness is celebrated, while different is despised.

It has not always been this way. America was built on the benefits of curiosity. We always wondered, “What was over the next hill?” America came about because of our desire to escape the “old world” and create a “new world.” With this attitude – in a time shorter than any country – America grew to become a world leader.

The bitter truth is that America no longer leads the way with new ideas, innovation and creativity. America no longer makes the best, we simply buy the best. This transposition of American leadership in all areas – political, economic and cultural – is a direct result of an American society that no longer views curiosity as a virtue.

And look what we’re missing. According to the experts at the website Stepcase Lifehack:

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive. And since the mind is like a muscle it becomes stronger through continual exercise, but atrophies with disuse.

Curiosity makes your mind open and observant of new ideas. When you are curious about something, your mind is like a signal-seeking missile that expects, anticipates, and welcomes new ideas related to it. That’s how good ideas grow and blossom.

Curiosity produces excitement into the lives of the curious, as well as those who associate with them.

Best of all, curiosity opens new worlds of possibilities for everyone. Newer, faster, stronger, smarter, cheaper, and more efficiently are just of few of the keywords in the lexicon of the curious. All they all, of course, lead to creating even more new ideas.

And the Moral of the Story . . .

We bemoan our problems and challenges, but are increasingly deaf to the value of curiosity. Sure, curiosity can be troublesome – even a pain – because it demands validation of what is being done or forces a change to do things better. But only by being curious can we determine what needs to be done to be better.

And this starts with all of us. If we allow others to suppress our natural curiosity, we are as much at fault as they. Our success as individuals – and ultimately our society – will be determined by our ability to question and challenge what is and seek what may be. It may not be easy, but it is ultimately the best way to achieve leadership and personal success.

As Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning . . . Never lose a holy curiosity.” America will move forward again once we understand the value of asking “why?” Tomorrow, start asking that question more often yourself. You’ll be amazed at what this subtle shift of thinking can produce.