Warning – the following is far more philosophical than technical so if you find it annoying remember you were warned…
We have developed a hyper-analytical mindset when it comes to change. This is learned behavior because the older and larger an organzation becomes the more management penalizes failure to the degree that we want 100% assurance of success before attempting change. We then marvel when young, new startups unencumbered by fear and cynicism race past established and essentially well run businesses. See Pie’s latest book review for a broader discussion.
Google announced the demise of their much touted Wave Email killer. Interestingly there was far more buzz on twitter and elsewhere that it was dead than there has been for the last year while it was alive. While some praised the move one of the most interesting comments I saw was an observation that the death of Google Wave was the result of innovation running ahead of an understanding of what the customers would do with the product.
This statement could not be more wrong and it is this type of thinking that stagnates technologies and organizations alike. Businesses must innovate – even when they don’t or can’t know what the outcome will be.
I have written before that only crazy people change things and I still believe it. Still it is good once in a while to ponder how real, substantive progress occurs in business and elsewhere.
The Five I’s
I boil this kind of change down to what I’ll call the Five I’s. Concepts that are really stages in the evolution of progress. They occur in both incredibly short and long cycles, almost fractal in their repetition at scale.
Inspiration is the beginning of leadership. It is an intangible quality but it’s effects are unmistakable. Inspiration manifests itself in drive, interest, commitment, passion and sometime righteous indignation. Inspiration is that emotional investment into something that leads you to give a part of yourself over to it. Without inspiration – work has no soul.
Malcom Gladwell’s book Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking is a fascinating study in how we perceive and know things without necessarily knowing why we do. Insight is not manufactured. Some would argue it can be facilitated but insight into a problem or task related to something you are inspired to care about is magical. Insight is understanding beyond the knowledge of the sum of the parts. It is a revelation of purpose or an untried path to a new place your inspiration can take you.
Innovation is the materialization of insight. Putting the pieces together in a new way with a new result. Without innovation insight is left at the dinner table or in email never to have an impact on anything. Innovation is the investment of the body in what the soul has revealed.
This is the hardest of all and is the lynchpin of change. Innovation at scale. Execution of the change outside the lab. Changing the preference or the behavior of a team or a market or a country. It will hurt. It is hard. It fails a lot but when it succeeds the whole system inches forward and the world turns.
When the inspired have implemented they must keep moving or die. Change is like breathing. Drawing in ideas – converting them to energy to move forward – breathing out the old way of doing things. Improvement follows the same progression of inspiration through implementation but within the boundaries set by the first iteration. Eventually one of two things must happen. The cycle will continue for a while but over time it will degrade and fade – or – an exceptional inspired insight within will burst out to start a new picture and a new system.
If you visualize this as a waterfall you are totally missing the point. It is a cycle or better a spiral. The outer most point beginning in inspiration, increasing is specificity to the critical point of implementation, where the loop turns in on itself and cycles within the boundaries of the incrementing stage until some inspiration breaks the line out of the pattern and it spirals outward to begin a unique instance which may or may not contain the original.
Whether in technology or business models or governments – the pattern is the same. The degree to which we are aware of it demonstrates our ability to affect the outcome in either a positive or negative way. Leaders who are unaware of this cycle are doomed to never break out of the improve phase and their organizations are destined to die in irrelevance.
Find what inspires you. When insight presents itself follow it. Dare to innovate and realize ahead of time that not every implementation will succeed. Finally, once the engine is running – don’t let the drone of the machine drown out the voice of insight because that could be the voice asking you to change the world.