You Are Not a Special Snowflake

You Are Not a Special SnowflakeI was teaching an exec ed the other day, which is always a lot of fun. During one of the breaks, one of the people in the class said to me “This has been really valuable to me because it reinforces that I’m not the only one with these problems.”

A very important point, which made me think of three big obstacles to innovation that I often encounter:

1. You are not a special snowflake. Many people resist innovation by talking about all of the special problems they face. Too many constraints, Too much regulation, a risk-averse corporate culture, a complacent, traditional industry, or a unique set of obstacles that you can’t possibly understand if you don’t face them yourself – all of these are terrible excuses for not innovating.

Look, everyone faces these problems to some degree or another. And yes, context matters – different contexts are what make adapting “best practices” incredibly difficult. You need to be aware of your context. But this is another tension in innovation – you have to both be aware of your unique context and recognise the similarities your situation shares with others.

Finding similarities is particularly important because it enables learning by analogy, which is one of the best methods for finding innovative new ideas.

So, yes, your context is unique. But your innovation problems are not. They’re probably pretty common. Which means that we know a few things about how to attack them.

2. My boss won’t let me. Of course your boss won’t let you innovate. Here’s something that Seth Godin says about this excuse:

“But wait!” I hear you say. “My boss won’t let me. I want to do something great, but she won’t let me.”

“This is, of course, nonsense. Your boss won’t let you because what you’re really asking is: ‘May I do something silly and fun and, if it doesn’t work, will you take the blame – but if it does work, I get the credit?’ What would you say to an offer like that?”

“The alternative sounds scary, but I don’t think it is. The alternative is to just be remarkable. Go all the way to the edge. Not in a big thing, perhaps, but in a little one. Find some area where you have a tiny bit of authority and run with it. After you succeed, you’ll discover you’ve got more leeway for next time. And if you fail? Don’t worry. Your organisation secretly wants employees willing to push hard even if it means failing every so often.”

“And when? When should you start being remarkable? How’s this: if you don’t start tomorrow, you’re not really serious. Tomorrow night by midnight or don’t bother. You’re too talented to sit around waiting for the perfect moment. Go start.”

Yep. Go start.

3. People resist change. Yes, they will – someone will always resist change.

Here’s a French version of what you face with any change initiative:

You Are Not a Special SnowflakeJoe Hice writes about this from an education perspective:

“Jeffrey Papa and Tom Hayes, from the marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, point to the 20-60-20 rule about organizations as a major stumbling block to change in higher ed marketing: While 20 percent of employees will be enthusiastic about organizational change and 60 percent could be persuaded to go along, the remaining 20 percent will resist no matter what—and those could be longtime, tenured faculty members. ‘The people who don’t make the transition moving forward are the presidents who spend too much time and energy trying to persuade those 20 percent who are never going to change,’ Mr. Hayes says. ‘At some point you have to give the get-on-the-train speech: We love you people, but we’re going.’”

All of these excuses are gumption traps – an idea that Robert Pirsig outlines in Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined ‘irreplaceable’ assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things ‘gumption traps.’”

“There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.”

It’s the same with innovation. We always face obstacles. As Paul Hobcraft once said to me in an email – “If innovation were easy, everyone would do it.”

Innovation makes you distinctive precisely because it’s challenging.

Joe McCarthy has some good suggestions for working through gumption traps – after all, his blog is called “Gumption” so he should know…

Another way to work through these excuses is to work on something worth doing. Hugh MacLeod captures this idea perfectly:

You Are Not a Special SnowflakeAnd if you do manage to change the world, maybe you are a special snowflake after all.

image credit: austinkids

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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