by Bob Kantor

Innovate your way back to the future

Nov 04, 2015
InnovationIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Don't let your success get in the way of communicating and innovating more effectively.

innovation digital transformation ts
Credit: Thinkstock

When it comes to both effective communication and to innovation, we have the same opportunity to improve our effectiveness.

That was a major takeaway from an executive round table I recently hosted in New York City for nine senior IT executives focused on improving communication and innovation within our organizations.

Work Back to the Future

The idea I came away with is to work “Back to the Future.” That is, you really can’t “get there from here” by working forward from your current state. To communicate and innovate, you need to reverse some traditional approaches.

Working forward from the present leads either to ineffective messaging instead of communicating, or incremental change instead of innovation. Instead, when we start with our end state or result in mind and work backwards, we get a much better map to follow to achieve our target outcome and create breakthrough results.

Applying this idea to communication means you would:  

1. Identify the result you want with your target audience.

2. Clarify what they think and believe today.

3. Craft your message to move them to close that gap.

And with respect to innovation the process goes like this: 

1. Identify a high-level end state far off into the future – perhaps 20 years away.

2. Work back to a more detailed end state that is halfway to that future – perhaps 10 years away.

3. Work back halfway one more time, to create a detailed description of your innovation outcome – perhaps 5 years away.

4. Create your implementation plan to get there.

Why working backwords works well

The idea of this process as applied to communication messages is to get out of our own heads and into the minds of the people with whom we need to connect in order to truly engage them.

In applying the process to innovation we break through the limits of our success to date, and free ourselves to invent something truly new and different.

Beware your secret sauce

Several years ago when I started to work with a Fortune 100 financial services company to help them improve leadership effectiveness, they admonished me several times, “Don’t mess with our secret sauce.”

As I learned more and more about their culture – a.k.a. their secret sauce – I realized that it had become as limiting to their dynamic growth as several more obvious issues. They were no longer successful because of their secret sauce. They remained successful in spite of their secret sauce, which had become an actual drag on innovation.

Steering the Titanic

More recently I’ve been working with an IT leader who had breakthrough results delivery of new financial products and services within his business unit. As we discussed generalizing those exciting results to the larger organization, he expressed concern that doing so would be like steering the Titanic. He got stuck trying to see a path from the success he had with his 70-person group, to a similar success with the other 50,000 members of his company.

As any of us who have tried to drive that kind of change can attest, it’s a difficult challenge. Still a work-in-progress, he is working back from a new vision of all 50,000 people in his company working like his smaller group does, and is actively reverse engineering that transformation. The “stepping stones” he is identifying are looking very different from his earlier path.

Changing the health care industry

I’m also working with a senior leader in health care who is looking to drive meaningful change in her industry. She has been working bottom up with her peers and realizing significant process improvements in the way they deliver care to their hundreds of thousands of members.

However, after attending several industry conferences in recent months, she is now seeing a way to work top down and across her industry to create a much more ambitious outcome that she had previously been unable to tackle.

Question for you

What are the implications for corporate leadership? If your organization is going to become more open to new possibilities – meaning to innovate – how does the relationship between leaders and those they lead need to transform?

Please let me know your ideas in the comments below and watch for a future Leadership Lab post on this topic.