In most cultures it’s common to compare the growth of new ideas to the planting and harvesting of crops. The implicit order organizes the essential actions: Prepping, planting, fertilizing, tending, harvesting and prepping again. The seasons are cyclical and absolute. All attempts to recast the sequence of events lead to failure and hunger.
We are bound up in a larger functionally restrictive system we call nature that imposes these rules upon all equally though some are unable or unprepared to unlock its generative power. While we do our best to prepare for disruptive factors like draught or disease we inevitably must alter our plans to avoid or accommodate these unforeseen events that ironically appear regularly.
So why not take them into account each season before planting? To do so would require that we both follow the natural rhythm of the field and make provision for unexpected challenges and opportunities. These four simple steps follow the order in which ideas develop while leaving room to make adjustments for arising circumstances beyond our view and control.
Second, enlist deep and diverse domain expertise. A farm is basically a small village comprised of a wide array of well established jobs synchronized around harvesting food. But when innovating in a complex organization where the roles are more ambiguous how do you actually know who can do what? Innovation requires real abilities and proficiencies to turn nascent ideas into valuable solutions. But the world is awash in great pretenders. Given the anonymity of the web, the fluidity of employment and the reach of globalization it is increasingly difficult to know who you are engaging to cultivate your field of dreams. Yes, there is tremendous opportunity and genuine power in the new federated workplace – both physical and digital – but there is also the real possibility that you will contract human malware. When hiring on new hands look at their portfolio, dossier and other forms of actual work product. Use your network to talk to people you know and trust. Who do they turn to for their solutions? Be sure to vary the areas of expertise, places of origin and other factors that will diversify your gene pool of knowledge and skills. Your aim is to create positive tension and the constructive conflict that produces hybrid ideas – new solutions – innovation.
Third, take multiple shots on goal. If you’ve ever visited a farm you will notice that some fields and rows of crops have signs demarcating seed variations, pesticides or fertilizers. Political and social controversies aside these posted placards represent a variety of experiments. Different combinations may yield very different results so farmers try a wide variety of small projects within a very limited time frame. This not only limits the risk of an unsuccessful planting but also the money invested in the experiments. By hedging their bets the farmer not only mitigates the downside of the experiments but also prospects their potential upside. Their small investment may show the way to a much larger yield at scale when applied to all their fields. Think of it as a divide and conquer method of implementation. This heterogeneous approach to innovation allows the farmer and you to adjust quickly to avoid problems and take advantage of opportunities.
Fourth, learn from experience and experiments. At the end of each season the tally is reviewed and the more efficient and effective variations are deployed at scale. Of course the acceptance and success of these experiments will ultimately determine their value. For example, if the market price for organically grown corn is significantly higher than a genetically engineered type, the farmer may forgo the later for the former. Either way the experiment is used to gain real information regarding what works and what doesn’t. As is often the case, this information may lead the farmer to abandon one crop completely for another more promising opportunity. While setbacks in the pursuit of innovation may be unavoidable, learning from them is optional. Effective after action reviews take real courage because they require you to confront your failures – What didn’t work? Why? But they also allow you to build on what worked as well. This gives you a chance to adjust accordingly – Start or do more, Stop or does less or simply keep doing the same. Reviews also bring the possibility of learning from your mistakes and developing simple rules of thumb to guide you in the future.
Success seldom comes with your first planting. For most of us it will take at least a few seasons to achieve our goals. Each cycle gives way to a new one but now with new knowledge and capabilities gained through real experience. Think of your organization as an open field. What’s growing? What isn’t? Why? Most importantly ask yourself and the other field hands “What must we do differently to have our greatest harvest ever next season?”