Upon joining the organization, a colleague worked very hard and earned respect among the senior leadership team. Her goal, from the beginning, was to rise through the ranks and eventually retire from this organization. All was going according to plan until a new VP of Marketing came onboard. Under the new VP, her career and reputation plummeted. I remember those days, she looked haggard and pale, like she hadn’t slept or laughed in a millennium. As luck would have it, she was assigned to lead the team tasked with bringing a risky new product to market. She and the team launched the product and succeeded netting the organization tens of millions in additional revenues that year. I remember her exuberance at that year’s sales meeting. She looked so different; happy and alive. Even 13 years later, when I talk to her about those days, her face lights up.
Our feelings are wound together with our work. I don’t believe the term, “it is just business” for a second, do you? We don’t check our hearts at the door every day the moment we sit down to work. Our feelings come with us every time, and this is one of the challenges that makes it so difficult to do new, innovative, high-stakes work.
No one wants to put in months or years of work and have a project fail because of what it means for us personally. If this project fails, is there something wrong with us? Do we not have what it takes? Are we not smart enough? The implications feel terrible.
We can’t predict which new projects are going to be a win, and which will fail. Because there is a chance of failure, we may decide it is safer not to put ourselves on the line and back away from the big new challenges. If our boards and CEOs and staff all do the same, our organizations will stall because innovation is the driver of long-term success and stability. So, what do we do with this conundrum?
Some of the most innovate-ing-ly-est people I know of have adopted a mindset to deal with this exact issue. For example, Seth Godin says:
We have the opportunity to expend the maximum effort on behalf of a worthy goal. And we also have the choice to mindfully accept whatever happens next. Acceptance is a choice in the service of our happiness and the ability to try again tomorrow.
I hear this a lot from entrepreneurially-minded people. Be invested in the work. Care about the work you do. Learn and keep making your work better. And then when you release the work into the world, emotionally decouple yourself from the results. Decoupling is very difficult to do for yourself, I know, I work on this exact problem every day. So perhaps it is a gift you can give your board and staff. Help them decouple the results from themselves.
- Leverage language – tone down the high-stakes language; instead, stress that this is an experiment, a test, we are in beta.
- Measure the right things – measure their deliverables, not the outcome. I.e., bring this product to market by December 2020, not increase revenues by $x.
- Model behavior – Thomas Edison went through the invention process so many times he learned to feel satisfaction from a failed experiment because that meant that he was closer to a solution. Your staff is watching how you behave during setbacks. Show them how you lean into the work, but decouple from the outcome.
Try out this new mindset as you nudge your association toward more innovation.