The Luck O’ the Innovator

fingers-crossed”If a man who cannot count finds a four-leaf clover, is he still lucky?” – Stainslaw Jerzy Lec

St. Patrick’s Day took place this weekend, and with it came the usual chatter about luck. Not sure how lucky the two guys I saw carrying their friend down 55th St. were, but I guess ‘luck’ can cut both ways…

Got me thinking about the role of luck in creativity and more specifically, successful innovation. In an interview with SEOmoz last week, I was asked where I liked to go when brainstorming creative content ideas.

“Luck is only important insofar as getting the chance to sell yourself at the right moment.” – Frank Sinatra.

In a way, my response was similar to that of Ol’ Blue Eyes’. Creativity is difficult to force. It’s often serendipitous. But you need to place yourself in an environment where creativity can flourish. It’s in that mindset where luck will find you. And when it does, your own talents will ensure you recognize and seize the opportunities that present themselves.

Was the guy who struck gold in California around 1849 lucky? Sure. But only because he actually went to California, and knew how to harvest the gold once he found it.

Organizations are only as creative as the individuals housed within them. But there are things they can do to build a culture of innovation, and increase their chances of striking gold.

Encourage non-traditional approaches to problem solving.

I had the pleasure of attending a design thinking workshop last year. As a warm-up exercise to get us in the right mindset, each team was given 10 spaghetti straws, a string, and a small piece of tape. The challenge was the build the highest spaghetti tower possible. There was only one rule. Dive right into trying things out rather than sitting back and endlessly discussing how best to construct the tower.

One team taped a piece of spaghetti to the ceiling. Ok, so maybe there were two rules. But you get the picture.

While the typical approach of collecting as much information as possible before proposing a solution is alive and well, rapid prototyping is emerging as a preferable alternative for solving an increasingly larger range of problems. It’s not just about product design anymore. Prototyping is being used successfully to solve organizational design, business process, and other key marketing challenges.

Build a tolerance for failure.

Implicit in a rapid prototyping approach is that you’ll fail. A lot. Sometimes you’ll learn through iteration. Other times, the entire idea will need to be scrapped. You go through a lot of bad ideas before you get to a good one.

But only in an environment where failure is regarded as a necessary step to successful innovation will employees feel empowered to dream. A colleague at a recent workshop put it best; you need to make failure an option. When too much is on the line, risks will be overstated and creativity will suffer. Google does an excellent job of this by slapping the word ‘beta’ on anything that’s not quite ready for prime time yet, while they work out the kinks.

Don’t throw too much money and too many people at the problem.

Too much money and resources can actually stifle creativity. The temptation to patch the problem with budget and people is too great; the ‘hunger’ just isn’t there. Too little money and resources can also make it impossible for your people to put themselves in an innovation mindset. But somewhere between those two extremes lies fertile ground for creativity and ‘finding’ your luck.

Depending on your organization’s culture, these approaches can create a significant amount of discomfort. Escalations will happen. People will feel threatened. That’s why it doesn’t work without a great deal of support from senior leadership. Don’t go it alone.

Good luck on building your own ‘California’ inside your organization.

Follow the conversation on Twitter at #marketingpfft or @Adriel_S.

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