Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hey Innovator...what skills are critical?

Being an innovator is a hard business. In fact, it is often downright painful. Why? Because you are usually a champion and in this role you must be willing to fight against the status quo and conventional thinking to lead those who don't see to a place of clarity and value. But how do you teach the skills of being a change agent? Some would say you can't. I don't agree. In fact, I have spent a long time thinking about the key skills that have helped me. And while there are some key internal skills (a topic for another day), one must realize there are some key skills a person needs as they deal with the people around them they want to change. Over my career, I have found the following skills to be the ones that have been critical to my ability to “innovate in space”. This means that wherever I am and whatever I am doing, that I am capable to assess the situation and come up with a way to influence those around me to see the value of the innovation or change I am championing. If you can know how and when to use these tools, you will be successful in driving change. The slide at the beginning of this post is a framework from what is discussed below.

Communication Clarity Skills: The idea of communication clarity is very important because it is the foundation for ensuring that you are on the same page with those you are trying to influence. Innovation is a dangerous game and when you are unskilled at communicating clearly with those you are trying to influence, you can very easily lose your credibility and lose the trust you have worked so hard to build. Communication clarity skills focus on just that...learning to get clear about what you mean.

Operational Definition Creation: I always tell the story of how when I was getting my MBA how my operations teacher who taught us nothing about operations, spent many classes talking about the most critical thing we would learn is the principle of operational definitions. This means when two people point at something and call it pink does it mean the same thing? This is critical because it is first step to creating misunderstandings between two people. If you are unclear on your operational definitions, you are starting off on the wrong path. There are many times in my career that I have failed at this and paid for it later. In fact, without it you can very easily end up working on the wrong thing and end up with a client that is pissed about wasting time. As an innovator you can really endear youself to others when you take the time to listen for mismatches here. I have saved many meetings simply hearing bad operational definitions and point out that people are not on the same page. They always thank me and it builds credibility for the innovator. It is also directly linked to poor expectation management, the other critical communication clarity skill.

Expectation Management: One of the most critical skills of innovation is learning to say no. Why is this critical? Because innovators in general love to see the possiblities in things and ultimately prefer to say, "I can do it". This fundamental love of change is our greatest asset and weakeness...unless you can learn to manage expectations. You can think of this as an innovator's power of yes, which a heavy dose of MAYBE lumped in. How many times have we promised something hoping it will work out, only to find you have stretched yourself too far and end up falling flat on your face. Being able to work with people and get clear on what you can and can’t get done is so important because in the game of change it helps you manage your integrity as a partner. This sounds obvious, but I have been amazed at people's ability or lack thereof to use candor when working in a partnership. People think that by making people feel good they will walk away from the table aligned. This is simply not true. While it can sometimes be offputting to be so clear with folks, it is critical to setting things in the right direction. This is also the foundation to building a great relationship that innovates and tolerates the issues that arrive between partners when driving change. So for me, I try to start every request or idea with..."no is always an appropriate answer". This is how I train myself to be better at this because I always remain open to hearing no, understanding why and working to manage expectations if I have gone too far with my idea for change

Collaborative Influencing Skills: The other type of skills that is needed at the higher level is collaborative influencing skills. Because in addition to communicating clearly innovators must also excel in their ability to influence when they have no authority. I have often said and stand by the idea that great innovators learn with no one reporting to them, they have no formal authority and have no budget. If you can successfully create ideas and implement them when you have nothing but your wits you can command a large group to do things for you. What this means that these skills in particular are very important because they are the second part of the external foundation that help you lead from a point of perceived weakness

Negotiation: If you think about it, everything we do is essentially a negotiation. Whether it is our children, our spouse or the people we work with you are negotiating your point more often than not. Why is this critical to innovation? Because you often have to get others who don’t believe to do just that; believe in something shocking and different. So the ability to use the formal negotiations is critical to success. I personally subscribe to the principled negotiation method. It is the innovator's friend because is a style that is based on collaboration. In this process, the first and most critical step is the idea of probing for interests. Simply put, this means taking the time to ask yourself what does the other person want? Most people do not spend the time to really think about what their partner wants, they are more interested in what they want to get in the negotiation. If you are too focused on yourself, you cannot really hear what is going on which can ultimately sink what you are trying to do. When it comes to interests it is imperative to keep poking and poking at them. Why? Because you might just learn something that makes the scenario a winner for everyone. You must play back what you hear and keep asking. When you get their interests it makes creating options easier because they will make sense for everyone. In addition, if you are clear on your own interests you will be sure what you will or won’t do. This type of clarity supports being good at expectation management as well as being strong a using operational definitions. In fact, the skills begin to flow together.

Facilitation: The last skill is something the most overlooked as a personal external innovation skill. Facilitation is the art of being able manage a group towards a goal. But what is different about innovation facilitation versus regular faciliattion? Most facilitation is merely a process by which you manage a meeting. Time keeping, agenda writing and neutrally helping a group go through the steps they outline to create value from a meeting. When it comes to innovation facilitation, a very unusual skill, the facilitator actually knows where they want to lead the group and literally drags them there in a very subtle way. How is this done? Sometimes the faciliator can say what they think and ask the group if it is a stupid idea. You goal is to bring people towards you and ellicit a reaction that is close to where you want to go. Think of innovation facilitations doing the process with an opinion. But the bottom line if you are able to mobilize a group towards a point of agreed to convergence you are on your way to helping them create something. Sprinkle in a little negotiation thinking, operational definitions and expectation management and you will see yourself moving everyone around and around to where you want them to be.

So that sort of it...

In my experience as I continue work to improve how I drive change in the world around me, I believe the skills outlined here will enable a person to really be able to tackle problems from any angle. And being able to tackle problems from multiple points of view is the essence of coming up with new ideas that ultimately need a change agent to implement them.

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