Turn Up the Heat for Innovation

"Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; make it hot by striking. " — William Butler Yeats

Applying pressure is a tricky thing.

I have seen managers apply pressure to teams where doing so made them "stupid." Team members would start to take short cuts which resulted in rework that made them slower. The pressure would reach a point where people stopped caring or just quit.

Yet, I have seen pressure drive people to great innovations and success. Apollo 13 is an example of extreme pressure where many rose to the challenge with unique solutions to near-impossible problems.

The challenge is achieving the right Friction Point for generating the heat of innovation. Here are three suggestions to help you achieve that balance.

  • Set realistic pressure with realistic consequences. The Apollo 13 leaders were able to determine what the situation was such that the consequences of their actions were clear. In situations such as that, no one questions the motivation for the pressure being applied. The more realistic and motivating the reasons for the pressure are, the more likely people are to rise to the challenge.
  • Make failure an option. The movie about Apollo 13 made the quote "failure is not an option" quite famous. However no one actually said it during the actual events. In fact, at that time, NASA had a great culture of collaboration. All ideas were put on the table for review and beating up. There were many failed ideas that led to the ultimate successful save of that mission. As a leader it is important that even in true high pressure situations, you make it okay for all ideas to be put forth!
  • There must be calm between the waves. In the ocean, larger waves have longer calm periods between them. If high pressure becomes the normal situation the innovation engine will slow and perhaps even fail. Many breakthrough ideas occur in the periods of the calm.

High pressure can result in lots of friction between people which can and will generate the heat of conflict. As a leader, you must remain calm and keep people focused on the ideas.

To be an exceptional leader, if the heat in this kitchen is too hot, I would suggest you learn to love the hot.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,
ALAN WILLETT