By Gail Gumminger

It appears that as the landscape of our environments remain uncertain and increasingly complex, many leaders are counting on innovation to address challenges and solve never been seen before problems. This is largely a good strategy if we understand two really important components of innovation.

One being, to truly innovate, we must reframe our mental models. Without really challenging our implicit beliefs, we too easily stay in our familiar operations without innovating anything.

George Day reported  that MINOR INNOVATIONS MAKE up 85% to 90% of companies’ development portfolios, on average, but they rarely generate the growth companies seek. At a time when companies should be taking bigger but smart innovation risks, their bias is in the other direction. From1990 to 2004 the percentage of major innovations in development portfolios dropped resulting in internal traffic jams of safe, incremental innovations that delay all projects, stress organizations, and fail to achieve revenue goals.

Is It WorthDoing?

Managing Risk and Reward in an Innovation Portfolio.

by George S. Day

To really get after innovation, we must push for unconventional ideas; overturn conventional thinking. Disruptive times call for disruptive solutions. “Soft” innovation is most likely occurring throughout our organizations every day but may be exhausting our teams with less than desirable achievements. As we know it, innovation is all about problem solving and synergizing change. We, as leaders, facilitate innovation in all types of ways including think tanks, R&D efforts, focus groups, laboratories, and so on. Even emergency management response teams find ways to innovate. The opportunities to really think outside the box are endless and will require a conscious effort to think and believe differently.

The second important component of innovation is figuring out if you are really faced with a problem or a polarity. Typically, with a problem, a solution exists, and it is up to you and your team to find it. Recognizing and navigating a polarity versus a problem is the new, hot off the shelf leadership skill required to meet our current challenges. Polarities are typically considered contradictions that exist in our environment that appear to be ongoing, adversarial and involve seemingly opposing positions. Recognize some of the polarities we are faced in our everyday?

  • Growth vs consolidation
  • Short term vs Long term
  • Change vs Stability
  • Mission vs Margin
  • Task vs Relationship
  • Tension vs Rest

Polarities are very common in our life. These natural tensions pull us to one side or the other. Innately, we try to resolve the tension by stepping into one versus the other, we fall into the trap of thinking we must address one over the other when in fact, we need to integrate them in new ways. Instead of either/or, it is very powerful to think in terms of both/and. Managing polarities can also help us manage unnecessary conflict by allowing all “sides” and perspectives to be right. Polarities also help us recognize that we might not have a problem to solve in the first place. Imagine the next challenge you face may not be a problem, but instead a polarity.  The approach becomes very different. Using a polarity mapping tool and process is  helpful to identify the attributes of opposing factors and/or poles.

Paradox leadership requires pushing innovation beyond pre-existing limits by challenging our own mental models and those around us. It also requires us to see a polarity and change the conversation from either/or to both/and. Embrace both truths and manage the tension with curiosity. Staying curious encourages everyone to lean into the gray and establish safety in the ambiguity.