Booze only brings false courage but coffee incites false ambition, an equally dangerous proposition. You know that to-do list you make at the opening bell that you are certain to conquer by lunch only to find it lingers on well into the wee hours before you finally abandoned it in despair like the impossible dreams of your halcyon youth. Lately, I’ve noticed that innovation has a similar caffeinating effect on leaders everywhere. I’m unsure if it’s the false stimulation it produces or the dulling of the senses but when the word innovation is uttered a torrent of completely unrealistic ideas are sure to follow. Listen carefully and you too can hear the sound of irrational exuberance: “It’s the next Google” or “we can build it in six months tops” or my favorite, the “you can do it” call of the misguided corporate cheerleader. Come to think of it, false courage and false ambition are both potent forms of delusion.
Sure there are the smarmy inspirational posters that human resources department plasters all over the break room where Michelangelo encourages us to reach for the stars or Einstein quips that creativity is way more important that being intelligent. I guess if you are an artistic master for the ages or the genius that redefined the space-time continuum you just need to level up your ambition and go for it. But what about the rest of us ordinary folk – reasonably competent and intelligent – who are just doing our best to be a little more extraordinary? Well, miserable old Thomas Edison put it in perspective as only the most prolific innovator of the last century could, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Innovation starts with ambition and is guided and sustained by it but the journey is arduous and requires discipline, diligence and a preternatural amount of good luck as you schlep hither and yon. Those with false ambition fall away along the way.
So how do we level set our ambition?
Go Big in Small Way: It all starts with momentum. It not what you say but what you do that gets things moving forward. Innovation is merely affirmed by outrageous ambition and upbeat blather but sustained by the pace and proof of concept. It’s the small things that start to work that lead to bigger and better things. As momentum accelerates, so does ambition.
Trust, but Verify: Ironically this iconic saying usually associated with President Ronald Regan is actually an Old Russian proverb. It’s one thing to believe you can achieve your aims, but quite another to successfully produce the tangible manifestations of innovation and gain acceptance in whatever markets you serve. Instead of waiting until you have the perfect mousetrap and hoping that world will beat a path to your door, it is far wiser to do some testing along the way. Make a little, sell a little and adjust a lot.
Manage Great Expectations: We’ve all been to the pep rally masquerading as a leadership retreat or town hall meeting. Like that good old All-American Knute Rockne, the emotional boss whips us into a frenzy with talk about winning one for the Gipper or poor little Nell or the emaciated shareholders. The problem is that the last three losing coaches all did the same thing. Unfortunately inspirational rah-rah doesn’t stick. Adults like to be treated as such and require some objective honesty and detached prudence in return for your credibility. Otherwise, cynicism abounds.
Ambition, yes, but reasonable, flexible and achievable. Both imaginative and measured. And just to be sure, you might want to cut down on your Java jive.