What is an innovator really? For many years being considered innovative was primary to my goals. Whether this meant working on the front end of the business, being the person people would turn to for "different ideas", or simply being the square peg in a round hole for whatever company I worked for, I relished the thought. And above that, leading an innovation effort was my real interest. Actually, I am not sure why this was my quest, but seeing new ideas and methods come alive was what I enjoyed and all that really interested me. And I guess the ME at the end of the last sentence really highlights the issue that needed to be overcome.
After many years of looking for the opportunity, my chance to lead an innovation program came to pass when I become global vice president of innovation at Daymon Worldwide. During my early days at Daymon, something happened. I am not totally sure when it occurred or how it occurred, but when I was in a position of "innovation leadership" it became clear that the innovation mantra was overrated. The more respect I received because I was in a position of authority on the subject of innovation, the more I saw it as my job to help others see why no single person can own an innovation effort. Don't get me wrong, I always wanted to have a chance to impact a lot of people by making their job fun and work as a place of self discovery, but not for my own ego's sake. In fact, after starting my twitter stream in 2009, I wrote something that helped me externalize what was happening.
Early in my learning this new social media technology, I wrote something that struck me as interesting...
Simply put...Innovation is to pupa as change agent is to butterfly.
Read it again...Innovation is to pupa as change agent is to butterfly.
Think about it. After writing it, it made perfect sense to me.
Innovation is merely an amorphous thing that people spend a lot of time fighting to define. How many of you innovators sit around defending your corporate existence arguing about how your efforts directly impact the bottom line? You can scream till your blue in the face about your efforts, but someone who is way more concrete than you will always argue that what you are pointing to is, "not innovative at all". They might go on and say its all our job to be innovative and what makes what you do any more innovative than what I do? And thus the merry go round goes round again. And again. Innovation is a great thing when it happens. It can be so obvious when it comes to life. That being said, I feel that what most innovators miss is how we can have the most impact on everyone.
And the word EVERYONE at the end of the last sentence is the point of this blogpost. After writing that twitter post, I began to realize that I was changing as an innovator. I realized that the concept of innovation, in my opinion, was merely a subset of the being a change agent. Change Agents (often referred to as innovation champions) operate on an entirely different plane. I began to recognize that if everyone could be about 5% more innovative the impact to the company would be so much greater than if my small team was 200% more innovative. The power of helping others see why they owned innovation became the focus, not the ideas or even the products/services. Our concrete friends are right, it is everyone's job and everyone is innovating everyday. What they fail to see however, some people use their culture, their process or their loyalty to how things are done are the seeds of where innovation stops and the need for change agency starts. It is only when a leadership team takes on the goal of showing everyone the power of having a culture of innovation that is based upon trust that true change can happen. And when I could see the power of culture and people as a key part of my role did I know I could always have an impact where ever I worked.
I recently received a complement I won't soon forget. I was having a conversation with a colleague who wanted to know more about what I had done at Daymon Worldwide. And as I shared with him some of my thoughts on how to build an innovation culture based upon trust, he listened attentively. After a back and forth discussion for about 15 minutes, he stopped me. He looked at me across the table and told me that my approach was different and that he really saw the power in the concept of innovator as change agent. I was very curious why he said this. I truly believe in the work I do, but like any good leader, I am always wary of my ego and hubris, because over my career when ever I feel like I am really doing great, someone always knocks me off my pedestal. So I asked him what I had said during our conversation that made him say this. He looked back at me and very directly told me. You know, I have sat in front of many innovators in my day, most of them always throw around the words innovation and strategy. You are one of the only ones who used the words people and culture. In fact, you didn't say innovation or strategy at all and that approach is different and refreshing. And at that moment I realized I had hatched from my cocoon and become a butterfly.