Taking The “NO” Out of Innovation

Transform Your Work and Your Life by Saying YES to Change

To innovate is to have a vision of the future and paint it on the canvas of the present. The future isn’t somewhere out “there” in the distance — we bring it to life with the ideas we nurture today and the actions we take now.

And the first action we must take to realize a better future for ourselves, our work and our world is to take the “No” out of Innovation.

Because, whether we admit it or not, we are hard-wired to resist change. We reject things that threaten our belief systems or that take us out of our comfort zone. We do this in our work and we do it in our lives.

Slightly embarrassing example: When I met my husband at age 23, I almost didn’t go out with him because he wasn’t my type. When I look at it now, my type at the time was moody, broody, unavailable, and usually toting a banged-up guitar. Thank goodness I had a sane friend who encouraged me to go on a first date with Vic because he was, as she put it, “nice.” I was kind of punk rock back then and, “nice” sounded like a nickname for the grim reaper. Against my will I said “Yes” and hit the jackpot.

There is a Wharton study that specifically looked at this propensity to reject new ideas. They found that at times of uncertainty, people dismiss creative ideas over more practical ones. The irony is that during uncertain times — that is exactly when we need to embrace new ideas the most.

I am sure many of us have worked in company cultures that can turn the rejection of new ideas into an art form.

The good companies know they have an innovation problem and they try to bust through this resistance to new ideas by creating dedicated R&D teams, funding innovation labs, hosting hack-a-thons and yet even when great ideas emerge from those efforts and we try to get them up and running oftentimes the politics of the company will quickly thwart those kernels of greatness from ever being realized. Why? Because they threaten what has been previously institutionalized.

There’s no reason that “the Music Industry” couldn’t have invented iTunes — but their response to the advent of digital distribution was to lawyer up against a 19 year-old rather than to evolve their strategies.

David Sarnoff, who worked at the Marconi Wireless & Telegraph Company, demonstrated the concept of broadcasting music in 1915. The head of the company dismissed his idea for a Radio Music Box, saying it wasn’t commercially viable. His words were,

“Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”

Sarnoff, to his credit, never gave up and became a major force in driving the delivery of commercial radio and television.

On a much smaller scale, I’ve heard that same sentiment about almost every cool job I have ever had. In the 90’s when I started working in eCommerce I heard “Who would ever buy something online they can’t hold in their hands or try on?”

At JAMDAT — a very early stage mobile games company we heard repeatedly “Who would ever play a game on their cell phone?”

And when I joined Machinima, one of the largest online entertainment networks centered around the gamer lifestyle I heard, “Why would anyone ever want to watch someone else play a video game?”

The other way we say “NO” to innovation is that we tell ourselves it takes someone special to be an innovator.

You’d be amazed at how many important innovations don’t come from a Leonardo Da Vinci or a Steve Jobs. Penicillin, the rubber tire, photography, the pacemaker were all accidental discoveries and very significant inventions that have changed our world. And not all inventors are men. Yes, women invented the sewing needle, the chocolate chip cookie and Liquid Paper but women also invented Kevlar, the windshield wiper, the circular saw, and the compiler. All pretty badass inventions created by women.

So, how do we create the environment that can foster innovation? To leap into a new arena without knowing whether it will work out? It really comes down to finding a way to be comfortable with uncertainty.

The first step is to be curious.

For me — I have found that the only reason I’ve ended up at so many great companies has really been an intense curiosity. I was really interested in finding out who would want to play a game on their mobile phone? I didn’t dismiss that question — I wanted to know the answer to it.

It was with that same curiosity I joined textPlus. I want to know how we can change telecomm experiences by making them fun and potentially even free.

The second step that I have found very useful is to arm yourself with data.

Committing to doing just a test to get the data makes it easier to start taking action on your ideas. Data helps remove some of the uncertainty that triggers that organ rejection against new ideas. It also helps the people holding the purse strings feel more comfortable.

But there is another reason I always use data to substantiate any new ideas. I have found that by being a female in business — especially one who works on technology products — is that I have had the added “bonus prize” of regulary having my leadership questioned. Having the backbone of hard facts and test data has really helped to get buy-in and support for my ideas even though I do have lady parts.

The third step that works for me to drive new ideas to completion is to iterate and course correct along the way.

Taking many small steps to realize your idea and responding to feedback in real-time mitigates a lot of the risk and removes the fear of failure. Oftentimes, you will find this process of iteration leads you to a better idea. Botox was originally created to fix crossed-eyes. Viagra was created to help angina patients. Clearly, their product testing cycle produced some very unexpected and more profitable results.

And the worst case is that some of these attempts to try new things, new journeys, new experiences won’t work out as planned. They may even fail. We could even be ridiculed because of them. And so what? If you keep trying, one of your ideas will hit. I have worked with just as many failed start-ups as I have successful ones. I just don’t talk about the failures in my life that much. The breakthrough for me was to realize that I can re-prime that canvas of my life at any time and paint a new picture. Difficult experiences don’t have to define me today — but they do add texture and depth underneath the picture I’m creating now.

The fourth step is to ensure you are embracing change in your personal life… at every stage.

There are many forms of innovation. Even if we don’t invent new technologies, new products or start new companies, we can still strive to master the most important innovation of all; a full and rich life that we create day by day. At any point in our lives.

When I turned 40 I became terribly depressed. I was so embarrassed by what I was going through because I thought I should be more evolved than that and I was seeing that I wasn’t the spiritual giant I thought I was. I was clinging to an old version of myself and it was causing me great suffering. This depression lasted well over a year. It was a very real thing.

Then one day I was sitting on the couch reading an article in a Financial magazine (what I like to do when depressed.) I came across an article with census data revealing that our peak earning years are 45–54 — well, perhaps it’s different if you’re a super model, athlete or an actor.

Immediately, with that data in hand, my feelings changed and I thought to myself, “It doesn’t matter what someone looks like when they are rich and powerful. Warren Buffet can get into any nightclub he wants to. I need to get busy. Besides, I am in the young part of the rest of my life.”

Then it hit me: becoming a power hungry diva isn’t such a great goal to have. So, I came up with a plan that after “rich and powerful” I will segue into “philanthropic yet eccentric” before I eventually slow down to build a glorious garden, reread the classics, have tea with visitors and take a lot of naps until I softly fade away and die.

And this new concept for my imaginary future actually made me excited about the second half of my life rather than look at it with complete terror. As I navigate the “back nine” of my life I’ve had to course correct along the way finding “well-funded and happy” to be an admirable goal and the fragile nature of life has definitely knocked me around a bit. However, letting go of an old idea created the space for a new vision that gave me hope and allowed me to value who I was in that moment as well as see what I might have to offer in the future.

And what a wonderful gift to share with those around us — especially the children and younger people in our lives who are watching us — to be examples of a life well-lived — connected and engaged, to find courage in spite of opposition, to survive painful experiences and stand tall with our broken hearts and failures because we know they don’t define us but they motivate us to reinvent ourselves at every stage in our lives.

There are great men and women, of course, whose lives have shattered the limits of what we think humans can do. We are all grateful to know that they grace our planet now and again to remind us of our potential. Will we all do something that will change the world? Most likely not, but anyone can take that first step to find out what you are capable of. Whether it is in your work, your passions or your family life — make a commitment to stop saying NO to new opportunities. Be curious, take small steps to start, test and build upon your ideas before just dismissing them. Create a life-well lived by saying YES to painting a wonderful new vision of the future on the canvas of your life today.

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