Behind the front desk of an Anchorage hotel stood a 70-year-old woman with a 1970s Farrah Fawcett hairdo. My first thought was that three and a half hours north of Seattle, innovation must encounter some obstacles! But then it dawned on me that the dated ’do from the days of disco was simply someone holding on to her prime. Unless this hotel clerk was auditioning for the slow-to-get-greenlighted “Charlie’s Angels – The Golden Years,” this style choice wasn’t the best example of the wisdom she most likely possessed.
Regardless of our brilliance and experience, we often knowingly trade genius for nostalgia. Frankly, it makes sense that people get stuck at their peak. They remember when they were great and want to bring that greatness into the future. Unfortunately, former and future greatness don’t always match up well.
It’s perfectly normal to think that what you did when you were your best is the way you should conduct yourself now. After all, we’ve been taught to do what we do best so that we spend time in our strengths and not in our weaknesses. But you may need to update your strength so it doesn’t appear to be a weakness.
Here are some questions to ask that can prevent you from turning a bad hair day into an unfashionable future.
- How well is “what’s working” working? If the results you’re getting as you do what you’ve always done are reliably steady or have a slight uptick, it’s an obvious indication your approach is worth keeping for now. But if your results reflect zero growth or a consistent decline, it’s clearly time to de-dinosaur (yes, I just coined that phrase – and no, it won’t catch on) and modernize.
- What are your competitors doing? I’m talking about the ones who are actually successful. Originality is wonderful, but sometimes your creativity is just overly enthusiastic weirdness that strays from the desires of those you want to influence. Really good ideas are most often a creative new twist on a solid and proven foundation.
- How well are you explaining the value of your existing offer and ideas? To quote my Aunt Ethel, “You look more like your daddy than your daddy looks like himself. And your daddy, who doesn’t look like anybody now, did then … you know?” No … we don’t know. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how smart you are if no one knows what you’re talking about! Many organizations have brilliantly innovative ideas; they merely lack the clarity to explain the value.
You can be a skilled storyteller with a wonderfully motivating message, but you still must be extremely clear when communicating the value of the message. Otherwise, the people you aim to influence don’t tune in, and then you’ll be tempted to tinker with your great message because it’s not producing the results you think it should. Why fix something that’s not broken? It reminds me of many occasions when my rather unhandy father would try to “fix” things around the house that he had in fact broken in the attempt. (One thing was for sure: If Dad was working on it, we were definitely getting a new one!)
This third point – making sure your value is clearly explained – is the one that organizations and individuals most likely miss and are least likely to fix. To be fair, it’s hard to see how your value is viewed externally when you’re on the inside. This is why many innovations and disruptions come from outside an industry.
When you don’t adequately ask and answer questions 2 and 3 above, you run the risk of business disruption by competitors who have. Microsoft introduced tablets and smartwatches a decade before the successful Apple version, but the Microsoft products were too far ahead of the curve (meaning we weren’t convinced of their value yet). Culligan’s delay into the bottled water business is notable too, but for the opposite reason: Somehow the massive, dominant water company missed the water trend? These are good examples of being too soon and too late.
So, how do we innovate at the right time without letting go of what’s working? And how do we avoid blindly changing what we might not realize is already working? An MIT study on robot navigation might shed some light. Aiming for smooth and safe robot navigation among pedestrians, the study’s designers saw the best results when the robots chose a velocity, then checked the world around them for one-tenth of a second, adjusted the velocity and continued.1
But to me the research showed clearly that robots still don’t really think, and apparently, we’ve forgotten that we do. So take the action of briefly stopping to analyze if where you’re going is working, check to see what those who compete for space around you are doing and make sure you’re not making unnecessary adjustments that will cause you to crash.
We can sum it all up in a very original way: Although combining artificial intelligence and Charlie’s favorite angel may not be well received, I think everyone will agree that very few things have a less predictable destiny than a robot with an outdated hairdo!