Have you ever been in an obstacle course that had multiple ways for you to proceed? What about reading a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book where at key moments to can make different choices resulting in different endings? More likely, you have played any number of video games that give you multiple options for how you might tackle the game’s objective.
Having decisions with uncertain outcomes to make is always a bit unnerving. We are much more comfortable with a contained situation where all the pieces of the puzzle are in front of us; like a jigsaw puzzle we might tackle on a vacation. While they might take a while to work through, we know we have everything we need to reach a solution. That is part of what makes them relaxing!
But in a world of integrated ecosystems, there are endless possible next steps with countless potential endings . . . and, like those immersive adventures, not all of them are good.
An innovator is almost never handed a jigsaw puzzle type of challenge. This is famously illustrated by Malcolm Gladwell when he wrote about the difference between puzzles and mysteries.
Usually it is a challenge that requires facing down an intricate set of systems that have significant dependencies. For example, an innovator might be tasked with considering how a retailer’s existing distribution systems might support user-generated products produced via a new digital platform.
Navigating integrated ecosystems is central to mature innovation efforts within organizations. And this navigation effort requires understanding two concepts that are not often seen as core to innovation: perspective and accountability.
Mark Twain once said, “Distance lends enchantment to the view.” It’s amazing what changing your perspective does to your ability to understand what you are looking at. When we are working with complex interrelationships, the ability to gain perspective on what you are truly dealing with is essential.
Corrie Ten Boom, a member of the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation, was an innovator who understood perspective. While famous for rescuing countless Jews and surviving Nazi concentration camps, most people don’t know that she was Holland’s first female licensed watchmaker. Used to configuring tiny mechanics, Corrie and her family created a secret room within her room where Jews hiding could flee when a buzzer alerted them of danger. Her family took a watch shop and reframed it into a gateway to freedom. That took a change in perspective. I love this simple statement she shared when trying to reframe the perspective of a younger colleague, “Learn to see great things great and small things small.”
In the Age of Context, innovators need to be masters at perspective. There are three kinds of perspective that must be mastered. The first is a relational perspective. Empathy and Emotional Intelligence fit here. We need to be able to untangle a mess of motivations, expectations and relationships that lie within any organization, just like the wires that lie just behind the door of that server room at your office.
The second is an operational perspective. Design and systems thinking fit here. We have to see the inner workings of the ecosystems that we are innovating within and understand how they operate on a regular basis. It is our job to understand the interrelationships and help those within our organizations to anticipate interdependencies.
The third is an outcomes perspective. Impact and evaluation thinking fit here. We must elevate ourselves above the activities and outputs of our work and think about our efforts in light of long-term outcomes that transform our customer, company or industry. This requires us to be able to walk in the shoes of those who will use our products or services and see how they will be changed as a result of our innovations.
As our ability to see the situation in front of us from different perspective grows, our need to understand accountability also grows. Just as perspective untangles the complexity of organizational innovation, understanding accountability does the same. Wikipedia talks about accountability as “answerability.” Accountability tends to be a word we see negatively. We see it as the effort of others to control our work, manage expectations and demand results. It is human nature to resist accountability.
But while we resist it when directed towards us, we tend to demand it of others. In our complex and interrelated world, there are countless examples of the cry for accountability. Let us take the rise of the migrant crisis in Europe as an example. Those being directly impacted by the surge of refugees and economic migrants want accountability for the way the crisis is impacting their lives. In short, they want to know who will answer for the crisis. As anyone who has studied the issue knows, answerability in this dynamic situation is complex. What is the responsibility of each citizen? Will you hold the governments of the destination countries responsible? What responsibility do the refugees and migrants themselves have for their actions? How about the human traffickers who enable the process? What about the leaders of the countries of origin who fail to provide security, jobs and a future? The answer, of course, is that there is responsibility at every level.
The same complexity that exists within the migrant crisis exists within most innovation initiatives. An innovator has to be skilled at identifying all of the responsible parties within an ecosystem, understanding what they are answerable for, and discerning how their individual responsibilities intersect.
Let us take each of these elements one-by-one. Our first task as innovators is to identify all the people within the various ecosystems that have responsibility for seeing things happen. These could be formal roles such managers, trustees, or vendors. They could also be indirectly connected roles such as industry thought leaders, associations, or customer advocates. Whoever they are, innovators must know how they view their responsibility and who they feel accountable to intimately. Only then can you negotiate these various accountabilities.
Secondly innovators need to understand what the various actors are responsible for. You might have a line manager who is responsible for a specific product or a trustee who sits on the finance committee of the board and is responsible for in-depth review of the organization’s financial status. These areas of answerability are different and will elicit different responses as you go about your work of reimagining the future of the organization. One might be more interested in how an innovation will impact their direct report’s daily activities and next quarter’s revenue. While the other might be more interested in how the innovation will affect the ability of the organization to stay in budget for the fiscal year.
Finally, innovators must see how the line manager and the trustee intersect and create accountability connections. Is the manager’s product line being evaluated because of falling revenue? How will the trustee view innovations that impact that product when they are already concerned about revenue? These relationships are where many of the surprises that sideswipe an innovator come from. Because we do not always see how people’s answerability intersects, we assume that there is no intersection. And then when we discover the connections, it is usually too late to avoid significant bumps.
When we are able to change perspective just-in-time and navigate layers of accountability with courage, we are well positioned to deliver innovation within the organization we serve. Both of these skills point to an even more basic frame of mind. The innovator’s ability to study complex systems and synthesize significant data points in order to understand their environment is critical to success. As an innovator you have to be ready to address complexity with courage. Are you willing to set the puzzle aside and step boldly into the maze?