The Permission to Innovate

Go Forth and Innovate (Conclusion Part 2)

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Some people don’t believe that they can generate the ideas their companies need. A story from a few years ago, when HP acquired a small start-up, illustrates the reason behind this mind-set perfectly.

Permission to Innovate

As part of the process of introducing the new team to HP, I hosted a session and invited HP employees to come and learn about the products and the people who would be joining the organization. We had a hundred or so HP people in the room, and the session quickly turned into an impromptu workshop about innovation, the nature of ideas, and ways that ideas could be generated. I got pretty energized and pumped; the conversation was going back and forth; and the group was full of ideas about how to leverage the new acquisition’s products and technologies. I love this kind of animated and excited mix. We actually brought prototypes in and showed the new team what some of tomorrow’s products were going to look like. They were thrilled, because this rarely happens. Most people are incredibly secretive with new products because they’re worried about leaks.

At the end of the session I asked the people in the room a rhetorical question: “What is preventing any of you from being able to walk out of this room and becoming the innovation evangelist?” After all, I don’t hold these meetings just to hear myself talk or to have a group come up afterward and tell me how great the speech was. My whole purpose is to equip others to be innovation spokespeople within their own department, industry, or organization. Not only in terms of letting their coworkers or contemporaries know what’s “coming next,” but also in demonstrating how to apply it when it does. I want people to walk out feeling they have the ability to be innovative within their own team, whatever their role is.

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I felt pretty good about this group. Everyone seemed to understand the message, and they showed enthusiasm about taking the ideas I presented about innovation, and the Killer Questions, and doing something with them. As I was wrapping up the session, I noticed a hand pop up. I pointed to the person and asked what his question was. He said, “Phil, great session. However, I don’t think I can be innovative back in my organization.” I replied, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, my manager hasn’t given me permission to innovate.”

I think time literally stood still for a second. I’d just finished a discussion that was focused on telling a whole bunch of people that they all have an inner spark of creativity that they can and must embrace. I didn’t understand how one person could allow another person to tell him that he was not allowed to come up with new ideas. It seriously didn’t make sense. Even if innovation isn’t part of your job description, your mind, your ingenuity, and your ambition are your own. No one can tell you not to use them. We are all free to look at a problem or opportunity, ask questions, think about what we see, and come up with solutions or ideas to address it. Still somewhat dumbfounded I asked him, “Are you seriously waiting for someone from senior management to come down to your cubicle and give you permission to innovate? Here, I’m going to solve this problem really fast for everybody in the room.” I put my hands up in the air and said, in my best Moses voice, “I hereby grant you all permission to innovate. Now, any questions?”

I truly hope that my “permission to innovate,” no matter how humorous it may have seemed at the time, stirred something in all of the attendees. Because that’s what I believe; you can’t wait for someone to tell you that it’s OK to try. It’s up to you to take that first step. When it comes to innovation and ideas, nobody has ownership or control over you. Nobody can tell you that “coming up with new ideas isn’t part of your job description.” Nobody can stop you from being creative, unless you are willing to let them stop you.

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I understand that some organizations and business cultures can be very controlling. It’s possible that you wake up in the morning with the energy and the enthusiasm to focus on the tiniest germ of an idea that you think has potential. But then you get to work and your boss says, “I need you to do these five things for me today.” And then tomorrow you come in, and your boss says, “I need you to do these four things for me today.” Despite all your energy, you can’t escape that you have a very task-oriented employer instead of one who might say something like Hey, if you see a problem, or something just isn’t working right and you think you’ve got a better way of doing it, then figure out a way to go do it your way. I’m going to give you the same piece of advice I mentioned in chapter 3 when talking about corporate antibodies: Sometimes you have to take a chance. If you have a great idea and you truly believe in it, then push. And keep pushing. If you asked the Killer Questions, and followed the FIRE method, then you have a good idea. Have faith in it, have faith in yourself. If you can’t get traction for your idea at your current organization, consider what other alternatives are open to you. Perhaps your idea is worth taking a personal risk on, or perhaps you need to find an organization willing to support what you do.

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