This week in the U.S. we’re celebrating our independence. But I also like to think we’re celebrating innovation. For Americans, they are one and the same.
It wasn’t just the need to be free of the economic hardships of British rule that lead the founding generation to launch American democracy, but the totally insane idea (with no precedent at the time) that it was possible to live without a king or queen, under a new system of government designed from the ground up. The founding men and women of America were brilliant and well-read. They undeniably had the right ideas at the right time. But they also had grit — the ability to push through difficult circumstances when every reasonable voice seemed to be saying otherwise.
Grit isn’t inborn. It’s acquired. And it can come and go depending on how inspired you are. Fortunately for our founding generation, they had some first-class inspiration. Just listen to this quote from Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, the fiery best seller that kicked off the American Revolution:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”
The language might seem a little flowery, but the heart behind it is powerful. In Paine’s words, there’s a promise that the future will look back on this moment as a turning point. There’s a reminder that nobody said this was going to be easy. And there is the implied question: what else are we made for, if not to test ourselves against the toughest challenge we can see?
Not all of us have a mind like Thomas Paine, and not all of us are called on to be at the center of grand historical events. But we all need grit and we all need inspiration to renew it. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to change yourself, your company, or the world.
Innovation is part design. There’s a lot of thinking, building, testing, and learning that needs to be done before a new product or system works. That’s what Lean Start-Up and GE’s FastWorks are all about. But where design ends, a necessary yet irrational process begins: just pushing through until something is actually off the ground. Getting through this process makes the difference between real innovation and just another good idea.
That’s one thing that Jeff Immelt, GE’s outgoing CEO, was great at. On project after project for over a decade and a half, I never saw him flinch. Ever. Long after most people would have folded, given up, and gone home, you could count on Jeff to still be forging ahead. Even when things were in danger of going wrong (or had already gone wrong), he never failed to remind everybody that making progress takes hard work, that gritty steps have to be taken after the beautiful plan is filed away. One of his best lines: “We’re on step 5, let’s worry about step 40 another day.” His perspective saved the day more times than I can count.
I am on a mission — for myself and for those I work with — to develop the capabilities and courage to navigate ambiguity, to be okay with not already knowing the answer, to try things even when we don’t know the outcome, and to develop stick-to-itness, despite how vague or hard the challenge may be.
Susan Peters, GE’s SVP of Human Resources recently echoed this sentiment in a conversation I had with her. Her comments actually sparked this piece. She said: “The most effective leaders in The Emergent Era will be the ones who can operate across multiple contexts and turn apparent chaos into simple opportunity. They’ll be the ones with the courage and grit to see potential in the unknown.”
The good news is that grit and inspiration can come from every part of an organization, not just the leadership. And they can come from outside an organization, too. These days, I’m finding a lot of great inspiration from books by changemakers doing their thing out in the world.
What are some situations where you’ve needed grit to make change? Who do you look to when you need to get grittier?
Let me know in the comments. These days, we need all the grit we can get.