The One Thing About Innovation That No One Ever Told You It's not the best idea that wins but instead the most acceptable one that sees the light of the day

By Dr. Pavan Soni

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Innovation differentiates the leaders from the followers. And we do not need a Steve Jobs to remind us of that. As aspiring as it is to innovate, it remains elusive for most individuals and firms alike. For innovation takes a lot more than a winning idea or even compelling rhetoric. It's something much more fundamental and mostly ignored to one's own peril that piles up the graveyard of failed ideas. There's a hidden dimension to successful innovations. Let's demystify it.

Have you ever wondered why people aren't as excited about your 'genius' idea as you are? Why can't others see any merit in what you have been completely sold to? How can people be so blind to glaring sparks of ingenuity?

Well, the problem is that your idea is great only in your head! Nobody else is even remotely as excited about it as you are, and frankly, it's not their shortcoming, but rather your problem. If this feeling is alien to you, perhaps you haven't tried enough new things in a corporate milieu or you suffer from selective amnesia. The tale of excited ideators meeting stony customers is all too common and so deeply taken-for-granted that is mostly eschews a mention. We think that's how it is supposed to be, and hence assume it to be the normal course of bringing ideas to life. But there is a better way. However, let's begin by acknowledging that 'innovation is a political process'.

Yes, innovation is indeed a very political process. It's not the best idea that wins but instead the most acceptable one that sees the light of the day. And the one who ought to make the idea acceptable has to be 'you'—the progenitor of the idea. If you think a second person is going to pitch some third person about an idea authored by you, you are deeply mistaken. No body cares about your ideas as much as you (should). You need to take 'extreme ownership' of your idea all the way to its logical conclusion. Again, it's not the best that wins but the most acceptable one. It's the Darwinian logical applied to the organizational context. Afterall, ideas do fight for scarce resources, with the most in demand being 'managerial attention'.

So, how do you ensure that your idea is 'fit' for the context and that others ought to rally around it? Start with the Stakeholder Map. It's an elegant tool to map out the key stakeholders and identify their benefits and fears associated with an idea. The key is to identify why they would and under which conditions they won't support your idea. By mapping their desires and worries beforehand you can save yourself a lot of misery and wasted efforts. Remember – no surprise is a good surprise in business.

Here's a pertinent question—what if your idea gets diluted while aligning it with the desires of key stakeholders? Is it worth the effort? Certainly yes. You must rather be fine with a diluted version of an idea getting through than the elegant idea not moving an inch. Often, we assume a purist approach to our own peril. Once that not-so-elegant idea gets going and people see merit in it, then they would be more welcoming to your full-blown solution. Rather, they would demand excellence from you and put their currency on your idea (read, their idea).

To understand the stakeholder map better, let's take a case. Supposed you are a recruitment manager of a startup and your idea is to explore a gamified approach to company induction where the incoming employees learn company values, priorities, and what's expected of them in a progressive manner, tied to rewards. So, you map the important stakeholders as: business leaders, recruitment team, learning and development team, and new employee. The way is to focus on the salient stakeholders, else it becomes quite a messy exercise. Now, for each stakeholder gauge the factors that benefit them and those causing anxiety. The approach is to maximize the actual and perceived benefits, and lower the anxiety and the fear associated with the new idea. You may not always be able to do so, but knowledge of what excites and dampens the enthusiasm of your key constituencies is valuable, for its only through these disparate teams that your idea gets to see its logical outcome.

While the exercise may seem time consuming and slowing down the progress, make no mistakes that you would end up with a far greater debt and burnt bridges if you didn't understand people's motives beforehand. If you alienate a critical voice, it will become that person's life's mission to derail your idea. And I am sure you had your share of such people in your innovation journey.

In summary, learn the political dimension of innovation. It's important to be politically savvy that while you don't play politics, you don't get played by the politics. Know your stakeholders, map their desires and fears and work around those to make your idea well rounded and more admissible. Your idea may be far away from what you had initially envisaged, but it would be more enriched and with more than your personal voice pushing it. And that's what matters in the long run.

Dr. Pavan Soni

Innovation Evangelist and Founder, Inflexion Point Consulting and Author of Design Your Thinking (Penguin, 2020)

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