A few weeks ago, I wrote that innovation happens in the gaps and offered a few suggestions for finding and closing those gaps.

But I only told you half of the story.

The gaps I wrote about are market gaps, the ones between what your customers want or need and what you offer. 

These gaps are relatively easy to close because they exist through no fault of our own and we have tools like customer research and R&D to help close them.  Closing these gaps is simply what we are in business to do.

But there are other gaps.  Gaps that are harder close, mainly because no one wants to see them.  These are the gaps inside your organization – the ones that exist between what you need, want and are willing to do.

These gaps exist because status quo is more comfortable and certain, and executives have little to no incentive to close them.  These are the gaps that create room for disruption and take down once-great companies.

Mind the INTERNAL Gaps

Need: What you must do to stay in business.  Need To Dos aren’t glamorous, doing them won’t give you a competitive edge or make you immune to disruption.  But, if you don’t do them, you’ll go out of business much faster than if you do.

Want: What you aspire to do.  Want To Dos are what you wish your company would do, achieve, or be known for.  These are the things you declare at company meetings, the BHAGs, and the visions.  They are what inspire and motivate employees.  They are also things that rarely happen because…

Willing: What you do in addition to the Need To Dos.  If “want” is the talk, “willing” is the walk.  Doing the Wants drives your resources allocation and investment decisions, drives the goals and KPIs you measure, and determines the expectations you set with shareholders.  Willing is what you commit to and base your compensation, and maybe even job, on

Close the Gaps

Need / Want: The Comfortable Gap

Closing this gap is comfortable because you know how to do it.  You know that just doing the basics isn’t enough to survive in a competitive world and you have experience investing in improvements that are almost certain to increase revenues and/or decrease costs in the near-term.

If you have a gap between what you need to do and what you want to do, understand why the gaps exist and invest in closing them.

Need / Willing: The Deadly Gap

Avoiding this gap is what drives most executives and entrepreneurs because this is where companies die.  Startups face this gap when they need more capital but investors aren’t willing to provide it or when they need to pivot but are unwilling to let go of their idea.

Giant, successful companies face this when consumer expectations change, technology leaps forward, and the basis of competition shifts.  They see it happening, but they are unwilling to change.  They cling to their business models, relentlessly focusing on better serving their best customers until they are, ultimately, disrupted.

If you face a Need/Willing gap, you need to decide whether you will let go of the safety of the current business to invest in disrupting it or whether you will “get while the getting’s good” and milk as much revenue and profit out of the business before it finally succumbs.  Both options are valid but making a choice requires great courage.  Unfortunately, most executives are too afraid to make that choice and their companies become victims of indecision.

Want / Willing: The Heart-breaking Gap

Seeing this gap is hard because it exists as a direct result of decisions made by the very leaders who seek to close it.  How many times have you heard an executive declare “We need to be more innovative!” and then embark on a year-long cost-cutting initiative? Or ask people to come up with ideas in their free time? Or shift resources from innovation to core business operations?

If seeing the gap is hard, closing it is infinitely harder.  Closing it requires change, it requires executives and employees to do things differently, often doing the opposite of what they’ve always done.  It requires smart risk taking and the willingness to learn.  It requires prioritizing the next decade over the next quarter.

If you face a Want/Willing gap, you need to look in the mirror and honestly answer two hard questions – Why do you want to be more innovative?  What are you, personally, willing to sacrifice to be more innovative? 

If your only answer to the first question is, “I think we should be,” or your answer to the second is “nothing,” STOP.  The gap is too big to close because you don’t have the will to do what needs to be done to drive change. 

But if you have clear and meaningful answers to the first question and you’re willing to make personal sacrifices if required, then you’re ready to do the challenging, frustratingly slow, but profoundly rewarding work necessary to close the gap.

Mind the Gap or Close the Gap?

There are gaps that we comfortably live with, gaps that will destroy us, and gaps that will break our hearts.  All gaps can be closed, but each requires different levels of commitment, courage, and time.

Are you willing to close the gap?