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Are You Inspiring or Dousing Innovation?

Seeing as how summer is supposed to include some rest and relaxation, I took advantage of a rare day off last week and went to Sea World (one of the many perks of living in San Diego).

I especially enjoyed the Shamu “House of Douse” show, in which several large killer whales do their best to soak everyone in the audience by deliberately splashing with their tails and by leaping high into the air and creating walls of flying water as they come crashing back down.

Many people (like me) scurry for the high seats in order to avoid getting soaked. Others, especially the youngsters, purposefully sit as close to the large tank as possible in order to get thoroughly drenched by the end of the show. Either way, a great time is had by all, including the orcas, who seem to relish the opportunity to douse visitors to their aquatic home.

Driving home (slightly wet rather than doused) it occurred to me that “douse” is a word you don’t hear too often. To most, it means to drench with a liquid, typically water. But douse can also mean “to put out, quench, smother, snuff, or extinguish.”

I then thought about (since I am constantly thinking about innovation) all the different things we do in organizations that have the effect of quenching, smothering, or even outright extinguishing innovation.

These common, but usually unintended, innovation “dousers” include:

  • Single thought. Relying on a single idea or plan to see your project through.
  • Getting really worried. Anxiety tends to limit the possibilities your mind ponders and focuses the mind too much on what will go wrong.
  • Getting easily frustrated. The harder you work at being frustrated the better you’ll get at it and the more you will find to be frustrated with.
  • Exaggerated importance. Making your challenge so important that you allow it to take on proportions well beyond what is reasonable.
  • Running it through a committee. Nothing destroys individual initiative like a well-intentioned committee. Having too many meetings to “discuss things” can waste time and usually doubles the cost.
  • Setting inappropriate deadlines. Make them too short and the task becomes impossible. Too long, and you lose interest in the project.
  • Not having fun. When you stop having fun the task becomes burdensome.
  • Knowing the right answers. When you become convinced that you have all the answers, you stop entertaining alternatives, which is a keystone to successful innovation.

What inspires (rather than douses) innovation? Try these:

  • Necessity. Nothing sharpens the attention better than demands that really make a difference to your success.
  • Fun. Having a great time helps the juices flow.
  • Boldness. Jumping right into a situation with both feet can help you overcome initial barriers or fears stopping you from addressing an opportunity.
  • Speed. Doing it fast as you can often stops you from too much judgment or thought on why it won’t work.
  • Shooting from the hip. Starting without a plan and applying ideas as they come to you can keep you constantly exploring versus getting locked in to one right way.
  • Pride. Taking pleasure in success and accomplishment is a strong driver to leverage.
  • Time pressure. The rush of the (appropriate) deadline gets you going and making progress.
  • Mental sparks. Feeling bold, standing out in the crowd, and getting noticed can be just the right thing to help you do it differently.
  • Trust in last-minute inspiration. Having faith in your ability to pull the project together opens your mind to more possibilities on how you will do it versus what will stop you.
  • Relaxing. Loosening up the grip of life’s worries gives your brain the space it needs to wander.
  • Reflection. Having a private time and space to contemplate your navel gives you time to ponder and explore ideas.

Most of all, take a risk! Not just a toe in the water, a no big deal if doesn’t work out kind of risk. Take a real risk, without a safety net. Feel the crisp bite of fear and go ahead with it anyway. The threat of failure lights a fire like no other. And the thrill of success is that much sweeter when you pull it off.

What are you doing to inspire (rather than douse) innovation in your company?

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