I was on site with a bank last week to run our Anvil Exercise. Anvil is an intense, hands-on experience with the executive team to build out their internal innovation capacity, establish governance and priorities, and launch the first tests with FIRE teams, all within 48 hours. It is like a “live fire” exercise from the military or a scrimmage in sports; the conditions may be more controlled than practice, but the bullets and the points are real. The participants execute with full intensity and the potential for things to take twists and turns is the norm. Participants and facilitators alike find it exhilarating and exhausting but the results make the effort worthwhile.
This bank is nestled in the hills between Eastern Pennsylvania and Upstate New York. Limited streetlights and 8 degrees Fahrenheit tested my pre-Anvil ritual of a run to clear my head. I passed the gym on my way out into the cold, dark, unfamiliar landscape. It was tempting to turn around when the first breath of freezing air bit my lungs. I could easily justify that I gave it my best effort and simply worked out on one of the three broken down treadmills or collection of mismatched dumbbells. The reality, however, is that if I didn’t put myself in a situation that made me physically and mentally uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be making progress towards my goals.
Do your innovations effort make you uncomfortable?
Does your team regularly make forays into unfamiliar territory?
If you aren’t making the gains you are looking for from your innovation work, it might be that you aren’t pushing past your boundaries. Activities like innovation theater and the fintech petting zoo can make us feel innovative but they don’t drive results. Reading the newspaper on the bench press or repeating the same running route at the same pace, isn’t going to change your performance. We sabotage ourselves from the outset when we don’t and then push past our boundaries. Pushing through boundaries is uncomfortable. We aren’t sure what lies beyond. We aren’t sure where it will end. We might stumble. We may even fall.
Discomfort is one sign you‘ve at least reached the edge of your comfort zone. Things not working out as planned is another sign you’ve pushed outside your comfort zone. In my case, an uneven sidewalk in the pre-morning dark at full training pace meant a case of road rash on my knees and elbows.
Not all failures or falls are to be celebrated. This isn’t a children’s race where everyone gets a medal for showing up. There is a difference between stumbling from incompetence versus pushing outside the realm of what’s comfortable; the former is to be studied and eliminated and the latter celebrated provided it was an acceptable level of risk. Falling because I was pushing hard through the dark is very different than forgetting to tie my shoes. The results of a well designed, well executed experiment showing a course of action isn’t viable should be celebrated. Failures due to a lapse of judgement, an ill-conceived plan, or sloppy execution should not be rewarded and the team responsible reassigned if the problem persists.
The best experiments test the killer hypotheses first. A killer hypothesis is one that has to be true in order for the project to work. In essence, we are setting ourselves up to fail and fail fast and that makes most people uncomfortable (HBR has a great podcast on killer hypotheses and the downside of innovation culture). Designing experiments we know will work aren’t experiments at all. A core operating principle at PerkStreet was that “never mistake activities for outcomes.” Activities can make us feel good because we are doing things, but they aren’t moving us closer to our goals, like showing up at the gym but never breaking a sweat or meeting with fintech startups but never moving forward.
If your innovation efforts don’t make you sweat, if the organization isn’t uncomfortable or the potential results don’t have a well deserved level of uncertainty, you may be sabotaging your ability to achieve meaningful results.