The One Word that Transforms Your Approach to Innovation

The One Word that Transforms Your Approach to Innovation

Have you heard any of these sentences recently?

“We don’t have time”

“Our people don’t have the skills”

“We don’t have the budget”

“That’s not what we do”

I hear them all the time.  

Sometimes they’re said when a company is starting to invest in building their innovation capabilities, sometimes during one-on-one stakeholder interviews when people feel freer to share their honest opinions, and sometimes well after investments have been made.

Every single time, they are the beginning of the end for innovation.

But one word that can change that.

“We don’t have time – yet.”

“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”

“We don’t have the budget – yet.”

“That’s not what we do – yet.”

Yet.

Yet creates space for change.  It acknowledges that you’re in the middle of a journey, not the end.  It encourages conversation.

“We don’t have time – yet.”

“OK, I know the team is busy and that what they’re working on is important.  Let’s take a look at what people are working on and see if there are things we can delay or stop to create room for this.”

“Our people don’t have the skills – yet.”

“Understand, we’re all building new muscles when it comes to innovation.  Good news, skills can be learned.  Let’s talk about what we need to teach people and the best way to do that.”

“We don’t have the budget – yet.”

“I get it.  Things are tight. We know this is a priority so let’s take a look at the budget and see if there’s a way to free up some cash.  If there’s not, then we’ll go back to leadership and ask for guidance.”

“That’s not what we do – yet.”

“I know.  Remember, we’re not doing this on a whim, we’re doing this because (fill in reason) and we have a right to do it because of (fill in past success, current strength or competitive advantage.”

You need to introduce the Yet.

It is very rare for people to add “yet” to their own statements.  But you can.

When someone utters an innovation killing statement, simply respond with “Yet.” Maybe smile mischievously and then repeat their statement with “yet” added to the end.

After all, you’re not disagreeing with them, you’re simply qualifying what they’re saying.  Their statement is true now but that doesn’t mean it will be true forever.  By restating their assertion and adding “yet,” you’re inviting them to be part of the change, to take an active role in creating the new future state.

There’s a tremendous amount of research about the massive impact of this little word.  It has helped underperforming students to overachieve and is closely associated with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research into fixed and learning mindsets.

The bottom line is that “yet” works.

Put Yet to work for you, your organization, and your efforts to innovate and grow.
Our Approach to Innovation is the Definition of Insanity, so Let’s Try Something Different

Our Approach to Innovation is the Definition of Insanity, so Let’s Try Something Different

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expected different results.”

This quote, often (wrongly) attributed to Albert Einstein, is a perfect description of what has been occurring in corporate innovation for the last 20+ years.

In 1997, The Innovator’s Dilemma, put fear in the hearts of executives and ignited interest and investment in innovation across industries, geographies, and disciplines.  Since then, millions of articles, thousands of books, and hundreds of consultants (yes, including MileZero) have sprung forth offering help to startups and Fortune 100 companies alike.

Yet the results remain the same.

After decades of incubators, accelerators, innovation teams, corporate venture capital (CVC), growth boards, hackathons, shark tanks, strategies, processes, metrics, and futurists, the success rate of corporate innovation remains stagnant.

Stop the insanity!

I have spent my career in corporate innovation, first as part of the P&G team that launched Swiffer and Swiffer WetJet, later as a Partner at the innovation firm founded by Clayton Christensen, and now as the founder of MileZero, an innovation consulting and coaching firm.

I have engaged in and perpetuated the insanity, but I’ve also noticed something – 90% of what we do in corporate innovation speaks to our logic and reason, it’s left brain focused, and 10% speaks to creativity and imagination, our right brains. BUT 0% of our work speaks to the hearts hopes, fears, beliefs, desires, and motivations of the corporate decision-makers who ultimately determine innovation’s fate. 

We spend all out time, effort, and money appealing to their brains when, in reality, the decisions are made in their hearts.

Of course, no corporate executive will ever admit to deciding with their heart, after all, good management is objective and data-based.  But corporate executives are also human, and, like other humans, they make decisions with their hearts and justify it with their heads.

Consider this very common scenario:

A CEO announces to investors and employees that “Innovation” is a corporate priority and that the company will be making a “significant” investment in it over the next 3 years.  A Chief Innovation Officer is put in place and Innovation Teams start popping up in every Business Unit (BU). 

These BU Innovation Teams are staffed with a few people and given budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  They are told to use Design Thinking and Lean Startup methods to create new products or services to better serve existing or new customers.

Each BU team, excited by their new mandate and autonomy, fan out to talk to customers, host brainstorming sessions, and create prototypes.  They pull together business cases showing the huge potential of the new product or service and run experiments to prove early market traction.  They meet regularly with the BU President and other key decision-makers. 

Everything is going perfectly until, about a year into the work, the company has a bad quarter, or the BU is likely to miss expectations, or an innovation experiment delivers worse than expected results. 

Suddenly, everyone is a skeptic.  Budgets get cut.  Team members are re-assigned to “help” other projects.  The team’s portfolio shrinks to a single project.  And like that – poof – the Innovation Team is gone.

As apocalyptic as that scenario may seem, the numbers back it up.  According to research by Innovation Leader, the average tenure of a Chief Innovation Officer is 4.18 years while an Innovation Manager’s tenure is 3.3 years.

What went wrong?  The company did everything by the book – they hired the right talent, established dedicated teams with dedicated budgets, talked to customers and created a portfolio of ideas, built prototypes and made small bets.

Innovation is an investment in the future so one bad quarter shouldn’t be its death knell. But it is. 

The reason is that executives know that innovation must be invested in today to produce results in the future, but they do not believe that they will be rewarded for prioritizing the future over the present. 

This belief then leads to fear about the uncertainty of future returns and the repercussions of failing to deliver the present, which then leads to fear that their career will stall or that they will lose their job, which then spirals into all sorts of other fears until, eventually, the executive feels forced into a “them or me” decision.

They decide with their heart (fear) and justify with their head (bad quarter).

The solution to this is neither simple nor quick but it is effective – we must dedicate as much time and effort to recognizing and addressing the thoughts, feelings, and mindsets (heart) that executives and key decision-makers face in the pursuit of corporate innovation as we spend on the structures, processes, and activities (head) of corporate innovation.

If this sounds like coaching, you’re right.  It is.  Just as executives benefit from coaching as they take on new and greater responsibility, they also benefit, in the form of increased confidence and better results, when they have coaches guide them through innovation.  This is because innovation often requires executives to do the opposite of what they instinctively do when managing the core business.

Innovation is a head AND a heart endeavor, and we need to start approaching it as such. 

To do anything less is the definition of insanity.

*** Originally published on on Forbes.com ***

5 Innovation Derailers (And What To Do Instead)

5 Innovation Derailers (And What To Do Instead)

Innovating – doing something different that creates value – is hard.

Innovating within a large organization can feel impossible.

In my work with corporate innovators, we always start with great optimism that this time will be different, this time innovation will stick and become the engine that drives lasting growth.

Within weeks, sometimes days, however, we start to be “loved to death,” a practice that takes one of two forms:

  • The Protector who says, “That’s not how we do things and, if you insist on doing things that way, you’ll get shut down.  Instead, do things this way”
  • The Enthusiast who exclaims, “This is amazing!  I would love to be involved.  And you should share what you’re doing with this person, and definitely tap into this other person’s experience, and I know this third person will want to be involved, and you definitely must talk to….”

Neither mean harm.  In fact, they’re trying to help, but if intrapreneurs aren’t careful, The Protector will edit their work into something that is neither different nor value creating, and The Enthusiast will suffocate them with meetings.

4 More Innovation Derailers

Being “loved to death,” is just one of ways I’ve seen corporate innovation efforts get derailed.  Here are the others:

Performances for senior executives.  Yes, it’s important to meet regularly with senior leaders to keep them apprised of progress, learnings, results, and next steps. But there’s a fine line between updating executives because they’re investors and conference room performances to show off shiny objects and excite executives.  It takes time for innovation teams to prepare for meetings (one team I worked with spent over 100 hours preparing for a meeting) which is time they aren’t spending working, learning, and making progress.

Vanity metrics that that feel good.  There are well-established metrics of success for existing businesses, but there is no commonly accepted set of innovation metrics because innovation evolves too rapidly and is pursued for countless reasons.  As a result, Intrapreneurs are tempted to “game the system” and measure things like site visits and NPS that make executives feel good, but which don’t measure the viability of the innovation in the market.

Inviting everyone to everything.  Transparent communication is important in all aspects of business, not just innovation.  But just as established businesses choose when, how, and with whom to be transparent so too must corporate innovators.  For example, one 100+ person accelerator invited everyone to every meeting and treated all comments as equally important.  While this may look and feel egalitarian, it paralyzed teams because they had to respond to every comment, test every suggestion, and defend every decision.

Basing incentives only on the core business’ performance.  Despite the mantra to “act like a VC,” it isn’t practical for large organizations to incentivize innovation teams the same way VCs incentivize their staffs or portfolio companies.  But the other extreme – using the same incentives with both core business and innovation teams – is equally damaging because it results in the pursuit of “safe” projects and demoralizes intrapreneurs.

As common as these 5 innovation derailers are, they are also easily overcome:

QMWD meetings.  Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly, Daily (QMWD) is an incredibly effective planning framework I often use with clients.  Here’s how it works:

  • Schedule one leadership meeting per Quarter and one per Month.
  • Create templates so that teams can quickly fill in blanks, instead of creating presentations from scratch
  • Monitor time spent preparing for meetings.  If more than one Week (appx 40 hours) is spent preparing for a Quarterly meeting and/or more than one Day (8 hours) is spent preparing for a Monthly meeting, revise the templates, process, and expectations

Evolve what you measure when.  According to research by CB Insights, the top two reasons start-ups fail is no market need and they ran out of cash. To avoid this fate, intrapreneurs should always measure desirability, feasibility, and viability and change shift of the three is most important based on where the innovation is in its lifecycle.  For example, early innovation metrics should focus on whether there is a need and whether the innovation satisfies it (desirability).  As confidence about desirability grows, metrics should shift to focus on the whether the innovation can be made and delivered in a financially attractive way (feasibility) and whether the customer is willing to pay (viability).

Use transparency to build support and let experience drive progress.  Innovation teams need to share their learnings with other teams, and they need to be open to feedback and suggestions.  Create a specific time and place for that to happen.  For example, one of my clients hosts a monthly Lunch & Learn for teams to discuss projects.  Outside of that dedicated time, however, empower innovation teams to move quickly because they are closest to the market.

Base incentives on the core business and innovation objectives.  It’s important to foster a mentality that “we’re all in this together” amongst core and innovation teams, which is why rewarding intrapreneurs on some elements of the core business’ performance is essential.  However, intrapreneurs are not working on the core business and, as a result, their incentives should also reflect what they are working on.  Like innovation metrics, there’s no common standard for innovation incentives which is why I encourage my clients to base innovation teams’ incentives on their objectives for the year and to adjust, even fundamentally change, incentives as objectives shift.

Say “Thank You” and move on.  As the Protector and the Enthusiast give advice and make connections, remember that they are trying to help, so write down what they say and respond with a genuine “thank you.”  Then decide what will be helpful, do it, and ignore the rest.  If they follow-up, have another conversation but odds are they won’t because their focus has shifted.

Lots of things derail innovation but, with a little planning and commitment, it’s possible to stay on track and do the “impossible” – innovate in a large organization.

Originally published as “Four Actions that Derail Innovation (And What To Do Instead)” on July 7, 2020 at Forbes.com

3 Things Leaders Must Do to Drive Innovation Success

3 Things Leaders Must Do to Drive Innovation Success

Dear Corporate Executive,

Congratulations! You’ve taken action to make innovation happen. You created an innovation team, you gave them all the Design Thinking, Lean Innovation, and Disruptive Innovation books and articles, and you left them alone to make sure that they aren’t infected by the corporate antibodies that plague those working on the day-to-day business.

But nothing is happening.

Or maybe something is happening but it’s not what you need or want.

You are frustrated.

Your team is frustrated.

This is not going well and if the team doesn’t turn things around, you’re shutting it all down. After all, you have a business that needs your attention and management and if you don’t keep your eye on that ball, there won’t be a future for the business.

I understand. I’ve been there. Lots of leaders have been there.

And you’re right, something does need to change.

YOU need to change.

As a leader in an organization, there are 3 thing YOU must do in order to have a chance at innovation success.

YOU need to do these things because only you have the organizational authority, influence, and power to make these decisions and support and defend the actions required to deliver on them.  Note that I use the word “chance.” Doing these 3 things is not a guarantee of success but, I promise you, NOT doing them does guarantee failure.

Talk about what Innovation will enable, not just why it’s important

Your innovation team knows that innovation is important, they desperately want to do it, and they’re working hard on it. But they need direction and the rest of the organization needs to know why the team is doing what it’s doing and why you’re giving them the resources.

Doing this requires that you go beyond explaining why innovation is important. We all know that innovation is essential to an organization’s long-term success. We also know that we should eat 5 servings of vegetables a day and floss twice daily. Knowing that something is important isn’t the same as doing something that is important.

Instead you need to set the vision for what things will look like in the future, after the innovation has taken hold. You need to show everyone how things will be better in the future because of the changes being made today. You need to give everyone something to believe in and work towards.

Man driving a floor scrubbing machine

Tennant T15 Floor Scrubber Operator Training

Consider Tennant, maker of the small bluish-green Zamboni like machines you see cleaning floors in office buildings and airports. They were founded in 1870 as a supplier of hardwood floors and invented floor scrubbers in the 1930s. For over 120 years, they worked to fulfill their mission “to become the preeminent company in residential floor maintenance equipment, floor coatings, and related products” and they enjoyed a nice steady business as a result.

Then, in 1999, Janet Dolan was named CEO, becoming the first non-family member to run the company. As a long-time member of the Board, Ms. Dolan knew the company well and she also knew that it was facing increasing competition and price pressure. So, with the support of the Board and her executive team, a year after she took the reigns, Ms. Dolan announced a new mission for Tennant: “To bring to market sustainable cleaning innovations that empower others to create a cleaner, safer, healthier world.”

That’s a pretty big change from floor maintenance, coatings, and related products.

And way more inspiring.

So what happened?

Revenue decreased from 2000 to 2001. Then it plateaued from 2001 to 2002. So far not so good, right?

In 2002, Tennant launched 2 new products — one that cleaned floors with 70% less water and 90% less detergent but resulted in significantly lower labor costs, and a carpet cleaning scrubber that used less water and detergent but which decreased drying time from 18 hours to 30 minutes.

Neither of these innovation would have been possible under the old mission because it defined Tennant as a company that made (and sold) “floor coatings, and related products.” But both were spot-on with the new one mission, one that defined the company as an enabler of a “cleaner, safer, healthier world.”

The result? A steady upward climb in revenue from approximately $400M in 2002 to $701M in 2008

Yes, Tennant did many other things (restructuring, altering their manufacturing process and supply chain) during that time period that also contributed to their growth. But you can’t cut your way to a nearly 10% CAGR. You innovate your way there. And Tennant’s new mission made that possible.*

Quantify what Innovation must deliver

“Money talks, bullsh*t walks.”

– Some guy in my 12th grade French class (I have no idea why this was said in the context of a French class but I do remember it better than most of the French I learned).

Yes, innovation is fun. But innovation for the purpose of having fun is a hobby. You’re innovating because you need to grow your business. So treat innovation like a business and give it a target.

Mind The Gap written in LEGO on the floor

LEGO Shop: “Mind the Gap” from TripAdvisor

That target is known as the Growth Gap.

The Growth Gap is a concept which, as far as I can tell, was introduced in Robert B. Tucker’s 2002 book Driving Growth Through Innovation: How leading firms are transforming their future and is one of the most important and simple innovation tools I’ve seen used.

In fact, you’ve probably already calculated your Growth Gap. You just do’t know it. Yet.

Start with your future revenue goal (you probably set this during your annual strategic planning process as the goal for 3–5 years from now). Now subtract your current revenue. Then, subtract the expected revenue of everything else in your pipeline. What’s left is your Growth Gap, aka the amount of revenue that innovation (i.e. stuff you don’t yet have funded or in the pipeline) needs to deliver.

NOTE: there are far more precise and complicated ways to calculate the Growth Gap but this was is quick and will get you to an answer that is more right than wrong.

Several years ago, I worked with a global athletic company that was already well known for its innovations but which was trying to become more systematic in their efforts and more diligent about investing in Breakthrough and Disruptive innovation. The team and its C-Suite sponsors knew that additional investment was required to fund Breakthrough and Disruptive innovation but senior leaders were hesitant to allocate the cash.

So we calculated the growth gap.**

At the time, the company had $25B in revenue and the stated goal of growing to $50B in revenue in 7 years. According to their strategic plan, they had line of sight to an additional $15B in net revenue (new revenue from new launches less revenue losses from declining and discontinued products) resulting in an estimated $40B revenue in 7 years. From there, the math is pretty easy $50B promised minus $40B predicted equals $10B Growth Gap.

This means that management had to believe that they could create and scale 2 new Facebooks (based on Facebook’s revenue at the time) in the next 7 years.

With the need for innovation quantified, the coffers opened and innovation investment, activity, and results sky-rocketed.

Get involved in the work

Yes, you have a lot on your plate. No, that does not give you the right to delegate innovation.

If you have set a vision for what the business looks like as a result of innovation and you’ve quantified what innovation needs to deliver for your business then your innovation team IS a business and you need to be involved

But you do have a lot on your plate.

And you’re probably already involved in innovation governance processes like sitting on an Innovation Council, reviewing learnings from innovation projects, making small investments to get to the next learning stage, asking different questions in innovation meetings than you do in your regular business review meetings, and celebrating “failures” instead of brushing them under the rug.

Good for you! (no really, I mean that).

But are you getting your hands dirty? Are you leaving the office to see innovation at work? Are you going into the market to talk to the people you want to serve?

How much of your time are you spending on innovation? If, like the executives in the above example, you expect 26% of your future revenue to come from innovation, are you spending 25% of your time with the innovation team? 10% (i.e. 4 hours per week or 2 days per month?) 2.5% (1 hour per week or a half-day a month)?

Spending time outside of meetings and inside the work of innovation can make all the difference. In one case, it made a nearly $1B+ difference

Welcome to Cedar Rapids Iowa sign

Liz Martin/ The Gazette

I started my career at P&G working on a product code-named DD-1.

In my first year at P&G, we launched DD-1 into test markets in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. And those test markets went extremely well. So well in fact, that we experienced product shortages and the emergence of a strange gray-market of DD-1 products.

At the same time, we were working with IRI to run DD-1 through a BASES test, a standard modeling exercise that sought to forecast initial and on-going revenue for new products and a standard step in the process for securing launch approval.

Since the test markets were going so well, we were confident that the BASES results would be equally strong and moved forward with putting together a launch recommendation for the new brand. We even scheduled a meeting with the CEO and COO to get their signatures on the launch approval document

Then the BASES results came back. And they were bad. Historically bad. Perhaps the worst results in the history of P&G.

But we were not deterred. We had the real-world results from our test markets and we confidently and optimistically plowed ahead.

DD-1’s leadership team presented the launch reco, including BASES results, to the CEO and COO. They explained that we did not believe that the BASES results were accurate because they used the re-purchase cycle of canned aerosol dusting sprays as an analog to the re-purchase cycle of DD-1 cloths and data from the test market (real world data! real usage data!) told a very different story. They asked for approval to launch.

The CEO said no.

The CEO believed the BASES results. BASES had always been accurate for all previous launches (keep in mind 99% of previous launches were incremental improvements to existing brands). The launch was cancelled.

Then, the COO spoke up. He believed the test market results and agreed that there was a flaw in the BASES methodology. He believed DD-1 should launch. He would take responsibility for its launch and its results.

The CEO acquiesced.

Swiffer was launched in 1999

Today, it is closing in on the coveted $1B Brand status.

Why, when presented with the same launch recommendation, did the CEO and COO make two different decisions? The COO spent a few hours one day in Cedar Rapids Iowa. He saw the test market results playing out live, he spoke to the people who drove from store to store to find refill cloths. He experienced the innovation instead of just reading about it.

So, my corporate executive friend, do not give up. Step up and lead (yes, even more than you have). Paint the picture of how innovation will shape your business’ future. Quantify what it must deliver so that you can make informed (and realistic) investment decisions. Get your hands dirty because even a few hours of working in innovation, alongside your team, can make all the difference.

Success is possible. You must lead the way.


*This story is based on two case studies by HBS professor, Lynda Applegate: Tennant Company (February 2010, revised January 2014) and Tennant Company: Innovating Within and Beyond the Core (June 2010, revised August 2011)

** Numbers have been changed to preserve confidentiality

Failure to Innovate is Evidence of Failed Leadership

Failure to Innovate is Evidence of Failed Leadership

When a business fails to innovate it is because executives fail to lead.

It is not because there is a lack of ideas

It is not because there aren’t enough resources

It is not because the market doesn’t support it.

It is because executives lack the courage to lead so they focus on being a “great” manager.

Now, before you get all upset about that truth bomb, let’s get clear on what two of the words used above — innovation and manager — mean

  • Innovation — Something different that creates value. Yes, it could be a new to the world widget. It could also be an improvement to an internal process. Trust me, employees have lots of ideas on how to improve things and many of those ideas require no resources. But they don’t speak up because they don’t see leaders, only managers.
  • Manager — Leaders set a vision and inspire people to follow them. Managers enforce the status quo and monitor and measure people’s performance. Leaders encourage debate, growth, and ambition. Managers demand compliance and repetition in pursuit of perfection. Leaders encourage curiosity and continuous improvement. Managers would rather live with a problem they understand than a solution they don’t. Organizations are filled with managers enjoying long and “successful” careers.

“Managers would rather live with a problem they understand than with a solution they don’t.” — John Bolton (my dad, not the ambassador)

One of the hazards of a career spent in innovation, as an intrapreneur and as a consultant, is that I’ve lost count of the number of innovation efforts I’ve been a part of. But I can tell you that none of the failures were due to a bad idea or a lack of resources or the absence of market opportunity. They were due to executives who didn’t have time to engage in and understand the process, who chose to allocate all resources to the core business, or who didn’t have the patience to invest in something now only to have their successor reap the rewards.

But I have worked with a few precious leaders who achieved great success.

Here’s what we can learn from the leaders.

Integrate leadership and innovation

One of my clients, the CHRO of a global pharma company, repeatedly points out, “every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. If you don’t like the results, change the organization’s design.” Given that most organizations keep their innovation team separate from the group within HR that focuses on leadership development, we shouldn’t be surprised that true leadership is often absent in innovation.

“Every organization is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. If you don’t like the results, change the organization’s design.” — CHRO of a global pharma co.

We also shouldn’t be surprised that the CHRO mentioned above designed a “Leadership & Innovation” function within her company. She and her C-suite peers recognize that these two things are inextricably linked and thus they must organize to encourage and enable both. They’ve put top talent in place in the organization and brought in practitioners from other companies to encourage diverse thinking and approaches. And they’ve put innovation and leadership goals on everyone’s development plans because you don’t become a world-class innovator through wishes and words.

Immediately be of service

The most successful innovation organization that I’ve ever helped build started with a grand vision and a humble task list. The vision was to be a “moonshot factory” in which new business models could be created, incubated, and launched without fear of falling victim to the tyranny of the business’ daily demands. The humble task list for the first year was to assemble and monitor the company’s innovation portfolio — the IP, projects, and products in each silo that were drawing funds from the corporate innovation budget.

Portfolio management is not glamorous work and it’s even harder when it means shining a light on decisions and activities that have thrived in the dark. But the work immediately created value for the CEO, providing evidence that the company really was spending 95% of its innovation resources on incremental improvements and less than 5% on projects that would redefine the company and the industry.

With the CEO now endorsing the existence of the group, they had the license to expand their scope and start helping select innovation teams. Once they proved helpful to leaders of those teams, they could expand a bit more into establishing their own projects. Now, 7 years later, the organization team employs 200+ people and has launched or piloted nearly a dozen new businesses.

Help people break the right rules

I’m all for “ask forgiveness, not permission” but the fact is that some rules cannot and should not be broken. Some of the unbreakable rules are obvious, like laws and government regulations, but some aren’t. That’s where leaders come in.

When I was in brand management at P&G, leading the launch of Swiffer WetJet, I broke a lot of rules. I made sure to never surprise my boss and even asked for his input on which ones to break and how to break them.

Sometimes he would tell me how to break the rule, sometimes he would tell me to break it and he would cover me, and sometimes he would tell me that if I broke the rule I was on my own. He trusted me to never surprise him and to always make smart choices and I trusted him to have my back when he said he would.

You have a choice.

You can be a leader or you can be a manager.

Being a manger is safer and easier. You can have a very long and successful career just being a manager.

Being a leader can feel risky and difficult. But it’s the only way to to inspire and impact others and to drive the innovation and change that is so desperately needed.

What will you choose?

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

The 5 Gifts of Uncertainty

“How are you doing?  How are you handling all this?”

It seems like 90% of conversations these days start with those two sentences.  We ask out of genuine concern and also out of a need to commiserate, to share our experiences, and to find someone that understands.

The connection these questions create is just one of the Gifts of Uncertainty that have been given to us by the pandemic.

Yes, I know that the idea of uncertainty, especially in big things like our lives and businesses, being a gift is bizarre.  When one of my friends first suggested the idea, I rolled my eyes pretty hard and then checked to make sure I was talk to my smart sarcastic fellow business owner and not the Dali Lama.

But as I thought about it more, started looking for “gifts” in the news and listening for them in conversations with friends and clients, I realized how wise my friend truly was.

Faced with levels of uncertainty we’ve never before experienced, people and businesses are doing things they’ve never imagined having to do and, as a result, are discovering skills and abilities they never knew they had.  These are the Gifts of Uncertainty

  1. Necessity of offering a vision – When we’re facing or doing something new, we don’t have all the answers. But we don’t need all the answers to take action.  The people emerging as leaders, in both the political and business realms, are the ones acknowledging this reality by sharing what they do know, offering a vision for the future, laying out a process to achieve it, and admitting the unknowns and the variables that will affect both the plan and the outcome.
  2. Freedom to experiment – As governments ordered businesses like restaurants to close and social distancing made it nearly impossible for other businesses to continue operating, business owners were suddenly faced with a tough choice – stop operations completely or find new ways to continue to serve. Restaurants began to offer carry out and delivery.  Bookstores, like Powell’s in Portland OR and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester VT, also got into curbside pick-up and delivery game.  Even dentists and orthodontists began to offer virtual visits through services like Wally Health and Orthodontic Screening Kit, respectively.
  3. Ability to change – Businesses are discovering that they can move quickly, change rapidly, and use existing capabilities to produce entirely new products. Nike and HP are producing face shields. Zara and Prada are producing face masks. Fanatics, makers of MLB uniforms, and Ford are producing gowns.  GM and Dyson are gearing up to produce ventilators. And seemingly every alcohol company is making hand sanitizer.  Months ago, all of these companies were in very different businesses and likely never imagined that they could or would pivot to producing products for the healthcare sector.  But they did pivot.
  4. Power of Relationships – Social distancing and self-isolation are bringing into sharp relief the importance of human connection and the power of relationships. The shift to virtual meetups like happy hours, coffees, and lunches is causing us to be thoughtful about who we spend time with rather than defaulting to whoever is nearby.  We are shifting to seeking connection with others rather than simply racking up as many LinkedIn Connections, Facebook friends, or Instagram followers as possible.  Even companies are realizing the powerful difference between relationships and subscribers as people unsubscribed en mass to the “How we’re dealing with COVID-19 emails” they received from every company with which they had ever provided their information.
  5. Business benefit of doing the right thing – In a perfect world, businesses that consistently operate ethically, fairly, and with the best interests of ALL their stakeholders (not just shareholders) in mind, would be rewarded. We are certainly not in a perfect world, but some businesses are doing the “right thing” and rea being rewarded.  Companies like Target are offering high-risk employees like seniors pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems 30-days of paid leave.  CVS and Comcast are paying store employees extra in the form of one-time bonuses or percent increases on hourly wages.  Sweetgreen and AllBirds are donating food and shoes, respectively, to healthcare workers.  On the other hand, businesses that try to leverage the pandemic to boost their bottom lines are being taken to task.  Rothy’s, the popular shoe brand, announced on April 13 that they would shift one-third of their production capacity to making “disposable, non-medical masks to workers on the front line” and would donate five face masks for every item purchased.  Less than 12 hours later, they issued an apology for their “mis-step,” withdrew their purchase-to-donate program, and announced a bulk donation of 100,000 non-medical masks.

Before the pandemic, many of these things seemed impossibly hard, even theoretical.  In the midst of uncertainty, though, these each of these things became practical, even necessary.  As a result, in a few short weeks, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can do what we spent years saying we could not.

These are gifts to be cherished, remembered and used when the uncertainty, inevitably, fades.

Originally published on Mat 19, 2020 on Forbes.com