The Taste of Innovation
Because of my article on the smell of innovation, I was asked a question during a conference recently, regarding the taste of innovation. While there are many aspects to innovation, and it is difficult to generalize, I would say that innovation is a fairly sophisticated and complex flavor; the taste, which probably resembles innovation the most, is bitterness. As a matter of facts, when now I think about the taste of innovation, I associate it immediately to Italian drink Campari.
Why Innovation tastes like Campari?
First and foremost, because innovation is an acquainted taste, just like the Italian drink. It is a learning process. Similarly to bitter tastes, innovation almost immediately generates an initial rejection, and most people try coping with it by diluting it in an attempt to reduce its intensity. But then, when you actually learn its ways, and you can finally appreciate the beauty of the bitter, the opposite occurs. That’s when most people actively seek cocktails and mixes enhancing the bitterness as much as possible. The self-evolution of drinking Campari starts from mixing it with orange juice – which smooths the bitter taste into the acidity of the fruit; once one actually is familiar with Campari, one tends to mix it with tonic or drink it straight with ice, by enhancing the bitterness of the Italian Drink. Then, of course, the most ultimate and sophisticated Campari based cocktail is the Negroni – the final stage of the self-discovery process – where the bitterness of the vermouth and the gin, mixed with Campari, create a very peculiar and exclusive organoleptic profile, specific to sophisticated consumers deeply conversed with the bitter taste of the Italian brand.
The bitter taste of innovation
In that sense, bitterness works as a metaphor for innovation and in particular, the taste of innovation. This is because again, innovation is an acquainted taste – it is something you need to learn through practice. And at the end of the day, one enjoys it for the sake of enjoying it by enhancing the bitter flavor rather than looking for a sweeter path. And this is what innovation should be. It should be about innovation for the sake of innovating and innovation for the sake of breaking barriers. It should not be about innovation because we’re seeking to be successful in the marketplace: that’s a derivative effect, which is too often confused with the objective and treated as criteria. Being successful at innovating, means being very good at failing at innovation, while learning to be better at it. And that’s where the metaphor stands.
In addition to that, successful innovation is really a consequence of many unrelated aspects: generating relevant and unique insights; understanding technology and its relevant benefits; being able to execute spotlessly. While the big issue with corporations, these days, is not the lack of idea generation; with the increasing adoption of design thinking and the notion of workshops and brainstorming being widely diffused, we can find new – and relevant – creative ideas within plenty of organisations. The problem – with most larger corporations and plenty of medium sized ones – is that, the more an idea is talked about, the more likely it is to going be killed. The traditional process of innovation is about looking for confirmation from superiors. Therefore, a condicio sine qua non for a creative idea’s survival through the process is building a winning story for the idea. And that’s not necessarily innovation, when communicating the idea takes time from building it and testing it. True innovation-driven leadership would redirect the focus of the organization beyond its obsession with communicating ideas, or its preoccupation with reviewing them and selecting them. Leadership driving innovation must ensure that the organization is no longer asking superiors to decide whether an idea is viable or not. Especially, when many of these superiors actually have no understanding of what the drivers, the reasons and the utility of the idea are. Because, when you build a process where a bunch of people who are tangentially involved, are in charge of decisions, this happens: many corporations use external competitors benchmark as a proxy, to determine whether something resembling the internal idea is in the marketplace already, and if it should be developed into an internal innovation project or not.
The nature of a true leader in an innovative organization is most importantly to abandon the obsession of communicating. Less PowerPoints and more building prototypes. Less focus on talking about innovation, its ideas and the greatness of the ideas with everybody, and more focus on building operations. More focus on trying to give innovations real meaning, form, shape and texture, and building a case for those innovations by converting them from ideas into potential executions as quickly as possible. We should seek upper level consensus only when the idea is no longer an idea – when it is already a tangible notion, able to stand strong before the process of communicating it. Prototypes, which are nearly always more engaging, tend to appeal to both functional and emotional minds, and are easier to understand and imagine further down the road; therefore they are probably better suited for receiving consensus, because they are tangible enough to be an easier sell, and abstract enough to leave room for dreaming (and improvements!).
In a nutshell, with the right type of leadership. More specifically, the leader of an innovative organization is the one predominantly delegating to her team the work. Micro management gets in the way of learning. Furthermore innovative leaders are also the ones helping their teams in re-framing any business questions. They help generating insights through a different perspective, a new angle. Of course, and needless to say, this innovation architect is not the one with all the answers – and she should not be – but she is the one helping her team re-framing the questions in a way that the team members can find the answers themselves.
A true leader in an innovative organization is pushing the team to think, to come up with solutions, and to work better as a team, so that they can help each other dynamically without needing further intervention. This leader also, by re-framing the questions, helps protecting the team in a sort of a bubble, where they can come up with specific and unique ideas without having to necessarily share them to the whole world, before they can stand on their feet.
The true innovation leader also has a very important task: reducing the bearing of innovation fatigue on the team. The process of converting ideas, most of which will never see the marketplace, into an innovative project worth giving resources to, creates a certain level of stress and frustration within the team. This stress is further combined with the fact that every organization is now talking with insistence about delivering innovation themselves. At the same time, these organizations are not really promoting a culture of innovation or a culture of failure and accepting failure. Removing innovation fatigue is, in the short run, really about making sure that the team can focus on the outcome rather than the process, to the extent that the outcome is learning rather than just creating new business. The new business will come, the successful output will come, but only if we learn, if we share the learning and if we come up with more ideas. In the long run, innovation fatigue is a by-product of the wrong corporate culture. Leadership really needs to address the fundamental question of how we can pursue innovation by striking a balance between rewarding success and rewarding failure. This makes possible for the employees good at learning, and therefore failing with their innovations, to not be penalized by projects not launched successfully. Instead, they should be able to grow, teach what they learned, and being promoted to leaders and executives of the organization themselves.
The key here is culture, but, of course, culture comes with the right people and talent, and culture is also derivative of the systems and the processes that we build. Because if we can’t reward certain behaviors or we can’t develop certain capabilities, culture is just a statement on a piece of paper.
In conclusion, the taste of innovation is probably bitter. It is unpleasant and sharp at the beginning, and then bit-by-bit, as we become more acquainted with it, we learn more about its hidden pleasures. Mastering the bitter is like mastering innovation: it is about learning rather than enjoying every sip, realizing that the prize its the journey.