Is being sensible a superpower for innovation?
I’ve recently been described as ’sensible’ by three different people that I work with. On each occasion, I felt my ego briefly flare-up. Part of me bristled at being described in such mundane terms. “Sensible? Sensible?!? Hardly. I work in innovation. I’m a snowboarder. I’ve got scars from walking through a glass door in Tenerife. Sensible??? Pffft.”
On the whole though, I was comfortable with the term, something I might not have been earlier in my career. But I was curious as to why it had stirred a reaction. No-one really likes being described as ’sensible’ and it’s not a term I would have used to describe myself — after all, sensible is the person I think of who wears a high viz vest to ride a Boris bike. But why is being ’sensible’ such a big affront to my ego? And what might they have really meant?
On closer inspection, there was a lesson here for me, a lesson about how the work I do is perceived by me and by others.
Working with startups to ‘innovate’, to create new technology-enabled services, to create new products for the business can all sound like work that is mostly creative, driven by grand visions and ideas, Post-It note fuelled inspiration, and almost always resulting in some sector-defining disruptive outcome. Part of this, I feel, is the endless mythology and misconception about innovation, technology and startups. The celebrities of these worlds, like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are swirled in narratives that make them sound like a mixture of Renaissance masters and druids. What they really are is outliers — individuals that sit so far outside the norm that the truth of their story has become dwarfed by their astronomical successes.
Meanwhile, people working in innovation-led endeavours like startups are often portrayed as self-indulgent creatives and visionaries (and often rightly parodied for it). Working in innovation, therefore, seems to infer people in turtle-neck sweaters and expensive running trainers, sitting cross-legged on sofas, waiting for the inevitable lightning bolts that will change the world. Creation, ideas, visioning — that’s what it’s all about.
If only that were true. To borrow from Edison, 99% of what is called ‘innovation’, is about solid work. Innovation, whether inside a corporate or a startup is more like science than art. Can you remember your high school science experiments? The scientific approach goes something like this: Create a hypothesis based on an observation. Design an experiment to test this hypothesis. Run the experiment and carefully collect data. Analyse the results. Develop a conclusion. Repeat.
This could equally be a neat description for the process of creating any new product, service, organisation, feature etc. Build, test, iterate is the well-known Lean Startup mantra. This requires a set of skills that owe more to sciences than they do to art: planning, observation, data collection, analysis.
Sure, the idea of being a creative genius or an alchemist creating transformative ideas out of thin air, is an alluring one. And it’s true also that Edison’s 1% inspiration is crucial. But most ideas come from processes or environments designed to enable them. Ideas are waymarkers rather than the whole journey; they’re encountered along the way rather than providing the whole story. They’re like the Instagram story your friends put up of their holidays — they show the pinnacles, the highlights, the glorious successes (or the carefully constructed public image if you’re a cynic). But they don’t show the hours and days in between — the planning, the sacrifice, the arduous journey, the dead ends and false peaks. Pictures from the summit of Everest always look like a lot of fun but we all know getting there was an ordeal that hardly anyone fancies undertaking.
And I’m firmly in the Paul Arden camp anyway — your ideas are not your ideas in the first place, they were already floating on the ether, put out there by someone before and you’re only borrowing their thinking.
So what does create lasting change that has value (for this is what innovation really is)? The answer isn’t sexy: rigour. It means remembering that the sole purpose of it all is to create some value for your business or your clients’. It means planning and having the discipline to stick to your plans or change then. It means testing, correcting and learning repeatedly. It means accepting that mistakes and failures are inevitable. And it means doing seemingly dull things well, over and over again. Apple, Google and Microsoft are all experts at trying, failing and trying again.
So what did my colleagues mean when they described me as sensible. I think mostly what they meant was my instinct to step back, analyse and plan, repeatedly. It’s not rocket science, unlikely to make for cool party stories and certainly not unique. But it is sensible.
Suddenly, being sensible feels quite useful.
(note: this article was not conceived while I was on my skateboard on the way to the ping pong table.)