How Innovation Is a Lot Like Manscaping (or, Why You Should Pay As Much Attention to an Innovation Project As You Would to Shaving Your Balls)

A reader of an early draft asked whether this was meant as a serious input to the innovation debate, or as a piss-take (i.e. sarcastic parody) of the tendency within the innovation industry to write endless articles on how everything can be used as an example of how to innovate. My answer? “Yes.”

Manscaping isn’t a comfortable discussion to most men. Then again, innovation isn’t a comfortable discussion to most CEOs. Both seem a just a tad too intimate, particularly if talking with strangers, so we tend to say as little as possible and quickly move onto something else. When it comes to innovation we might be slightly more talkative, but even there we prefer to talk in vague generalities, rather than baring it all.

Now, manscaping and innovation might not seem like the most obvious things to compare, as one is about a fairly straightforward removal of hair, and the other is a complex process where a wide range of resources and inputs can affect the outcome, but I will still here claim that there are commonalities between the two. Further, it has always been my view that one can learn from the most curious places, and that reflecting on things that are very intimate and close to us can be an excellent way to trigger creativity.

So how is innovation a little bit like shaving your testicles? Well…

You really need to pay attention.

Both innovation and manscaping are things that shouldn’t be done in a cavalier fashion. Both require attention, and not just during one specific part of the job — although this is more common than you’d think, particularly when it comes to innovation. Some people, including some CEOs, seem to think that innovation is mainly about planning and vision. While they do spend some time outlining the goals they have for their innovation initiatives, they then tend to let their attention wander, only to later realize that their goals weren’t met. At this point recriminations start.

This is not entirely unlike a man spending an inordinate amount of time planning his genital shave in detail, including the laying out of an impressive array of tools, only to go about the actual job with casual abandon. Now, people obviously have the right to work in whatever way they wish with their own bodies, but this seems like a recipe for disaster. At best, the results will be uneven. At worst you’ll wish you never started the whole thing to begin with. And yes, this goes for innovation as well.

In both manscaping and innovation, you want to be very present and very mindful throughout the process. There is no space for coasting, nor are there points where you can just forget about it and trust that the process will take care of itself.

You should pick the right tools for the job.

“Just do it” is great advice when it comes to exercise and dieting, less so when it comes to hacking away at your genitals with sharp blades. Or, as it happens, when it comes to trying to get your organization out of a rut by way of innovation. In both manscaping and innovation, having the proper tools for the job is absolutely essential. If you just get down to it using any and every tool at your disposal, you are likely to cause both irritation and damage, as you’re working with a very sensitive area. This goes double if you’re talking about manscaping.

The problem in innovation is often an overabundance of tools. As innovation management is both an art and a science (and not even a very exact one), there is no shortage of models and frameworks to use. In fact, the opposite is often true, so many would-be innovators get so tangled up in the plethora of possibilities that they never seem to find the time to actually innovate. The tools are important, but more important still is to pick a tool, ensuring that you know how to handle it, and start working.

Each tool will handle a little differently, subtly changing the end result. Each tool will also have its limitations and drawbacks. This is part of the game, and realizing the trade-offs is part of the innovation process, and the shaving process too.

End-user input is essential.

So, you’ve invested in a major innovation overhaul. You’ve dedicated time and resources to create something new and shiny, and you’re mighty proud of what you and the team have achieved. Now comes the moment you’ve been waiting for — the big reveal. You have the audience primed, and with a flourish you put it all out there. And…

This is the moment every innovator dreads. Will they applaud? Will they just stare, unblinkingly? What if they laugh? The fact is that you really never can know, which is why smart innovators do not wait until this last moment, but communicate with their market well in advance. This, as innovation isn’t just about bringing an invention to market, but to solve an issue for an end-user in a meaningful way, and this involves issues both objective and subjective.

In innovation as in manscaping, user experience is key. No matter how technically advanced you’ve been, no matter how fastidious you’ve been in your work, the end-result will be interpreted and you will be judged on this interpretation rather than on the process and the inputs.

You shouldn’t overdo it.

Fewer people than you might think go for the “utterly shorn” look. Most adult women (and men) know that the human body has some hair, and aren’t really all that put off by this simple fact of life. Manscaping is all about careful and moderate pruning, and innovation should be too.

With this in mind, what I’ve found is that a key element of successful innovation leadership is the management of expectations. If a CEO expects his or her organization to continuously pump out radical innovations and nothing but, this will in all likelihood depress rather than energize it. Conversely, if a leader is only prepared to support incremental projects with a guaranteed ROI, the organization is likely to adjust to this and not even attempt anything grander.

Balance is a difficult thing, but it’s an important thing. So is moderation. Too often we talk of moderation as a negative thing, and as a lack of ambition, but this isn’t so. Instead, moderation is the mature realization that going overboard might be fun once, but it’s not a sensible approach in the long run. Nor is doing nothing.

You can’t just do it once.

One word: Stubble. Nothing makes a nice manscape as troubling as not having worked with upkeep. Similarly, nothing is sadder than a company that once, long ago, had a glorious innovation project that is still wistfully referred to, all while its business is in decline.

It is a sad but true fact that in innovation, there is no magic bullet. Rather than doing it once and then being done with it, you need to invest in continuous upkeep, paying heed to the process. In fact, you need to adoptera a mindset in which you never see any one part of the process as finished, merely as a step in an ongoing process. Whenever you think you’re done, you’re not.

At least in manscaping there’s laser hair removal, which while not a perfect solution can at least be a somewhat long-term solution. So, until we can find something as efficient for innovation, there is one difference between the two…

So, there you have it — how innovation is similar to (but not quite the same as) manscaping.

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