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The Quest for The Holy Grail of Innovation

Companies, leaders, and teams are always looking for that magic elixir that will lead them to that next level – innovation!

Innovation is the Holy Grail, and business leaders want that mysterious elixir to make their teams creative, their product irresistible, and their company great.

Leading business magazines answer this call for innovation by suggesting that we

  • Hire the right people

  • Offer a fun, flexible work environment

  • Work in bursts

  • Hire to fit values or culture

  • Encourage diversity

These and many other strategies are suggested to create an innovative workplace. While we agree that any of the suggestions from the list above could be useful, none of them are the magic elixir for innovation.

The Holy Grail

What if that Holy Grail wasn’t really out there?

What if that Holy Grail was free?

What if the Holy Grail wasn’t something to seek, like a formula or a magic pill, but instead is innate to who we are as people?

The Holy Grail is all of those things, and more, but it begins messy and it demands that we work from the inside out. (What kind of quest would it be if there wasn’t a hero’s journey?!)

The Source of Innovation

Innovation comes out of fire – usually, if not always, out of the aftermath of a crisis, a blow-up, or a dark night of soul.

Innovation is the combination of all that is known being twisted, bent, compressed, and/or exploded in such a way that transformation occurs and something new rises.

When you apply this definition of innovation to a team, you’re talking about conflict. Yes, uncomfortable conflict. Not “mean” conflict, but passionate disagreement where things do tend to get messy

Teams Naturally Create Conflict

Teams are formed around a vision or mutual purpose. Generally, teams are made up of smart people with diverse skill sets, people who are passionate about the goal or purpose.

This is fertile ground for conflict. Conflict is created when differing opinions, strong emotions, and high stakes converge. Those qualities are just what you want in a team, and yet they’re also the ingredients for a bomb!

The Leader’s Mistake

Most leaders try to defuse the bomb. They try to tone down the conflict and head off an explosion.

Some common defusing pathways:

  • Determine the right answer, primarily through logic, reason, and efficiency

  • Cut off discussion and take things “off-line” when they get too emotional

  • Manage the strong personalities through one-off conversations

  • Listen to the loudest or to your favorite, the one whose thoughts are usually the same as yours

  • Declare yourself as the leader and force a direction

As long as a team stays on the path of defusing, innovation is shut down, and the best outcome is simply the maintaining of a set course, or more likely a slow decline, in performance.

Fostering Innovation

When we work with leaders and teams, our focus is on helping them get unstuck and turn conflict into a resource, not a problem. Creating that type of environment is not the result of a set formula like “If that happens, do this.”

An innovative team environment comes from developing the skill and capacity to tolerate and work with tension and ambiguity. For a leader, this means leading a team to a place of the unknown and inviting tension and ambiguity.

This is not easy, especially when we want answers fast and want to look like we know what we’re doing. Plus, there’s no guarantee that, even with a willingness to lean in and blow up, the end result will be something great.

However, not taking that risk almost always guarantees staying average.

So, what can we say? Messy works.

Creating the Space

For a team to move into that innovative space, there needs to be a container within which people can wrestle, declare, inquire, make mistakes, listen, and learn. When a team has a space and container within which to engage, and when the explosion is invited rather than defused, an alchemical process is created that makes the results innovative.

The leader’s quest is to leverage the team’s IQ by building a container that cultivates conflict, tension, ambiguity, and messiness. This is no small task, but it can be done.

When Innovation is the key, here’s what you can do as a leader:

1. Be human and acknowledge it – You are the model. If you acknowledge it when you’re uncomfortable in the tension and ambiguity, it lets others know they’re not alone.

2. Don’t go for the quick fix – The drive for efficiency is usually born out of your own discomfort of not having the answer or looking bad.

3. Get out of the right-wrong trap – Yes, we all want to be right, but do you want to be right more than you want to succeed?

4. Mine for conflict – If you see people disengage, check it out. You want people to speak up, have different opinions, and hang in for the long haul.

5. Listen to the naysayer with interested curiosity – Yes, you may think that person is just a pain in the butt, but try stepping into their shoes and seeing the world from their point of view anyway. You might be surprised when you get out of your own way.

What have you got to lose?

If you don’t try innovating through the mess, you may end up being efficient, but you’ll likely also end up just being just average.Your choice.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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