Be Impatient, Embrace the Detours: Lessons in Innovation

The impatient are, in general, more likely to innovate because their definition of what is "too slow" in life is set at a lower point than average. They are also far more likely to get off the highway.

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Imagine yourself stuck on a highway in a traffic jam. What do you do? Sometimes you get off the highway, and sometimes you stay on it. In the Boston area, drivers sometimes choose to drive in the breakdown lane at full speed hoping not to hit a car that needs repair.

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But what does driving in traffic have to do with driving innovation within organizations? Whatever decision you make in the above situation, for all practical intents and purposes, you are thinking about innovating in order to achieve your goal.

In my experience, there are several factors that impact one's decision to stay in the traffic or try another route.

  1. You have information that lets you know you are going to be creeping along on the highway for a very long time. This could be information from a traffic report. It could be the pace at which the traffic is moving relative to your experience. But at some moment, most of us have the thought "this is just too slow" and decide to try a different way. Innovation is like that. The impatient are, in general, more likely to innovate because their definition of what is "too slow" in life is set at a lower point than average. They are also far more likely to get off the highway. Businesses are like this as well. Some business cultures are, by nature, impatient and these cultures tend to innovate more substantially and more frequently than the average.

  2. You have a deadline to hit and you know staying on the highway isn't going to get you there. As a resident of Chicago, I most often have this feeling on the way to O'Hare on the Kennedy Expressway. There are times when you know you just aren't going to make it and you get off because it's your only chance. To take this back to innovation, the easiest time to innovate is when you feel like you don't have a choice. It's when you look at your revenue forecast and recognize that there's no way to get there without doing something different. This is an urgent situation, and not taking a risk simply isn't going to work.

  3. Navigating off the traditional route has previously produced positive results. People who have had success in getting off the highway before are far more likely to do it again than those who have never left the highway. A strong corollary of this is that people who are likely to innovate don't hold too high a bar for what innovation actually is. Small changes (left lane versus right) can represent innovation to someone who has only used the right lane. Part of gaining confidence is seeing innovation whenever it happens as opposed to defining the "standard" path too broadly.

  4. You can still change your mind before you're fully committed to another path. Watch a traffic jam sometime. Most of the people who are going to get off the road get off when the traffic first starts to slow down. The reason for this is because as they perceive the change of pace, they make the decision to leave. Those who have made the decision to stay on the road tend to stay on rather than reconsidering their decision. The lesson for those who want to be more innovative is twofold. First, pay attention to changes in pace. Sometimes in life, as opposed to on the highway, changes are hard to see. Second, force yourself to reconsider. Just because you've decided on one direction doesn't mean you need to stay with that decision.

  5. You have sufficient familiarity with the alternative paths. I'd bet that people are, on average, far more likely to get off the highway in an area that they know well as opposed to an area with which they are unfamiliar. They know something about the direction they are taking and the tradeoff they are making. In innovation, it's generally easier to innovate in an area that you know something about than to step off the path (on purpose) in an entirely new area. Interestingly, in business, people often think the other approach is better...that people are more likely to be innovative when put in a wholly new situation. This seems to conflict with human nature.

Innovation is something we do every day, even in mundane situations like driving down the highway. If we all had a better sense of why we innovate and a clearer sense of how much we already innovate, we'd all be a lot more likely to innovate more.