2 Legends that Cause Innovation Teams to Fail



a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.
"the legend of King Arthur"

Synonyms: myth, saga, epic, folk tale


Two Legends of Innovation Are Hurting Innovation Teams

Legends have a way of influencing how we live and do our work, and I see a lot of legends in the field of innovation. 

The legend of the creative genius: She saw the world in a whole new way and just like that, the innovation took off on the power of the idea and this amazing individual’s creative vision was brought to life in the world.

The legend of the courageous risk taker: He wouldn’t listen to the critics and he was willing to bet it all because he had so much conviction. Of course, things worked out brilliantly because he was right all along and had courage no one else could offer.

At Structural, we work with a lot of corporate innovation teams, and I love it. When these teams describe their work, they are upbeat and passionate. 

Here’s just a little bit of the excitement that I’ve heard in the past two weeks alone:

  • “Our industry is changing and our company has the foresight to invest in the future.”  
  • “We are looking 10 years out and trying to disrupt our company culture so it adapts to where things are heading.”
  • “We get a chance to look at a mix of startups, innovative vendors, internal projects, and more with an eye towards where we can make the biggest difference in the shortest period of time by bringing more focus to the opportunity.”

Unfortunately, I also hear a lot of this:

  • “Our team is being cut because we couldn’t deliver results.”
  • “We are struggling to leverage the full resources of the organization.”
  • “It’s impossible to get anything done with the ‘mother ship’ being so slow.”

So, how do the legends of innovation cause innovation teams to fail?


The Legend of the Creative Genius

It is true that there are some incredibly genius ideas that have impacted the world, but even those iconic innovations we grow up reading about and connect to were often more successful due to teamwork and trial and error than creative genius.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."
-Thomas Edison

The legend of the creative genius causes innovation teams to fail by encouraging the pursuit of outside talent over unlocking internal talent, by diminishing the value placed on collaboration and iteration, and by over-prioritizing big ideas that can take years over micro-innovations that can build to big break-throughs over time.

A recent comment from one large innovation team offers an antidote to this legend.

“Our goal is to unlock the expertise and power trapped in the thousands of team members across our organization. We want everyone to be able to reach deeper and farther across our organization to find the right collaborators, subject matter experts, and more in real time."

The Legend of the Risk Taker

Large, successful, organizations are often risk averse and that happens for the simple reason that they have a lot to lose. As an entrepreneur myself, I was once asked by a large company executive, “how do you approach innovation in the startup arena?” I replied, “First, I start with nothing, and then I move forward remembering that I have nothing to lose.” 

However, the legend of the young entrepreneur and risk taker turns off many would-be innovators in those large companies, as well it should. Innovation should not be about putting your company’s future at risk in the service of your “big idea.” 

The best innovation is typically more inclusive and happens as a series of little bets (or calculated risks) as outlined in the book: Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims.  Risk taking also shouldn’t come from one legendary figure, in fact, a whole office culture of ‘little bets’ should be cultivated by innovative leaders. According to Sims, “You have to catch people making mistakes and make it so that it’s cool. You have to make it undesirable to play it safe.”

Innovation teams that fail, often hire a lot of people who think they, and they alone, need to dare greatly which inevitably reinforces the “Legend of the Risk Taker.”  

Successful innovation teams hire team members with diverse approaches and points of view. Meanwhile, they invest time into strong innovation training and communication programs to promote innovation as an accessible, and low risk, asset for their everyday work and culture. For example, if you’re working at a bank or a healthcare company, you need a community of supporters, within your organization, who are willing to bring their subject matter, expertise, and pragmatism to the table in support of new ideas. These experts aren’t always going to be natural risk takers so making innovation accessible to them makes a positive difference.

So, beware the legends of innovation that make innovation seem separate and incongruent within your large organization. The reason your innovation team holds so much potential is that you have a large organization with broad resources and a deep well of expertise behind it. By creating an innovation community with an approach that is agile, inclusive, and interconnected, you can write a new narrative. One where you realize your potential, create legends of shared success, and build a culture of sustainable break-throughs.




About the Author

Scott Burns is the co-founder and CEO of Structural. Previously, he co-founded GovDelivery; which grew to 250 people and had two successful exits. It has been Scott's personal and professional mission to inspire and enable organizations and unleash the potential of people and teams.

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/smburns/ 
Twitter: @smburns

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