Innovation rumble strips


It suddenly came to me as I almost “drove off the road” while getting pushback on a concept that bucked the corporate culture: The sound of my tires on the rumble strip, warning that I was about to go outside my designated lane.

In full disclosure, I’ve been an innovation rumble strip myself on occasion and in many of those cases, it was more impulse than rationality. Make some noise, cause things to slow down, and then take time to digest what’s really happening.

However, for many, their job description (and satisfaction) requires them to create that innovation rumble strip sound. In fact, if they don’t hear it, they’re probably not trying hard enough. Silence is the sound of stagnation.

So to beat this metaphor to death, there is a skill in moving into a lane that is not really meant to be driven in. Those with this particular talent regard the rumble as an exhilarating sound. For them, the breakdown lane be better defined as the “breakout lane.”

Many get nauseated at the thought of moving out of their comfort zone and into uncharted territory. Others have the “need for speed” and espouse the legendary Formula One driver Mario Andretti’s mantra mentioned in a previous blog: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”

History tells me there are a few ways to address innovation rumble strips.

The first and least acceptable is to eliminate the noise by keeping the status quo. Sometimes this will be more challenging than change. This was best described in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s slim epic about Sicilian history, The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”  Nothing could be more true in technology-driven enterprises. There is a skill in keeping a business retro!

The second way to address the rumble is to use it as a learning experience for the rumblers. The professorial side of my life tends to favor this method, given that there is nothing more satisfying than inculcating a sense of constructive rule-breaking in those with disruption avoidance. Like a fear of flying or spiders, this needs to be approached as a change-desensitization exercise meted out in one small, disruptive step at a time.

In some industries where digital disruption operates at a glacial pace as a result of generational resistance, the baby steps have been something as basic as moving from paper to PDF files, even in 2018!  But once that initial fear of flying is overcome, the challenge can evolve to one of managing the rate of change that the previous contrarians now demand.

The final way to address innovation rumble is to organize high performance teams who love the sound because they only operate comfortably in the passing lane. In fact, they’ll rumble loudly when they’re forced to comply with the status quo and move into the slow or breakdown lane.

This method requires strong senior management chops that permit certain innovation teams to operate outside the normal hierarchical structure. The goal is to have as little of the normal bureaucratic drag as possible to avoid creativity asphyxiation. But as with any creative team, it requires a leader who can handle some highly intelligent “misfits” who don’t always react well to structure.

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