Innovation: A long and winding road

  • Posted on June 26, 2018
  • Estimated reading time 4 minutes
Innovation at Makeathon

On the spectrum of introverts and extroverts, I would say I’m somewhere in the middle. I get energy from others, but I do some of my best thinking (believe it or not) alone while I’m 35,000 feet in the air traveling for business. Innovation is similar; sometimes that initial spark of an idea comes while you’re thinking solo and then it sets fire when you toss it around with a group. Putting parameters and structure around innovation only makes it tougher to generate those hugely explosive ideas and yet every business, regardless of size or industry, strives to cultivate innovation into everything they do so their offerings are relevant and ahead of the competition. We live in an innovate or die world, but it’s hard to escape the daily grind.

So how do we ignite innovation?
The first thing you need is time. Not that “11:30pm right before you crash time” or the 30-minute brownbag session where you’re otherwise sandwiched with back-to-back meetings. You need wide open headspace and room to experiment, seek and understand, then make mistakes, erase and start over.

Innovation requires solitary time followed by group think – then repeat. Don’t be afraid of that isolating first step. It can feel cold and dark at times. You may spin on a thought or bite off more than you can chew, but trailblazing is never easy. Take heart that we’ve all been there and this is where build, test, learn and refine comes to life. It’s when you get to those moments of despair that you should open things up to others. Insert teamwork. With the open hearts and minds of a group, you’ll find fresh perspective. Collaboration brings the human experience together to share ideas, analyze and seek to interpret insights and experiment with fresh approaches, methods and new ways of thinking. Processing things as a group almost always helps get “unstuck.”

The next ingredient is forgiveness. Forgive yourself for hitting reset at times and for going almost as far back as your starting point. Innovation is messy and, as my buddy Paul McCartney wrote, a long and windy road. Appreciate the chaos and the learning because that is where explosions happen and new insights are garnered.

Get uncomfortable. Status quo and “business as usual” are the enemies of innovation, so push yourself to challenge the routine. You’ll find tension when you innovate. Tension, because you are trying to change things and because we can’t be satisfied with the way it’s always been done. The needs of tomorrow may seem far-reaching and scary, but embrace feeling conflicted and a little anxious. Move past it because it’s worth it.

How do I know it’s worth it?
Not only have I lived through this with clients and companies I’ve led, but I just had one of those ‘discomfort zone’ experiences during my first four months here at Avanade. We challenged ourselves to infuse more innovation into the Avanade culture—30,000 people dispersed around the world, most of whom have clients to serve and very demanding schedules. While innovation is part of our DNA, it’s not always part of our day jobs. We wanted to celebrate and block out some of that much needed wide-open headspace; to innovate with reckless abandon.

The Regional Innovation Summits were born of this desire; they’re a day dedicated to learning, collaborating and celebrating innovation. With Regional Innovation Leads at the helm, we gave some loose parameters for the event and issued real world business and societal challenges for teams to solve in breakouts. These were “makeathon” rather than “hackathon” sessions - open to all roles and skillsets. Members of our advisory, HR and marketing teams contributed ideas that were deemed equally valuable to the technical ones. More than 30 summits took place around the world during the month of May, and it was fantastic to see how each of our teams handled them with their own unique flair. From t-shirts to video spoofs to Star Wars themes, we saw people make these events their own and the more than 1,000 participants raved.

There was no secret to the success of the events. We reserved the time, helped people mentally prepare (that solitary pre-think time) and asked them to bring an open mind and good energy. We bottled it up, shook it and this happened.

Getting uncomfortable and taking risks has never felt so right. We may meander at times but seeing ideas explode is worth the wandering and time. I highly recommend trying it.

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