Puzzle (2)

We all know people who are certain: certain of the way things should be done, certain of the outcome and certain of the future. We hear it from politicians all the time.

Yet, in business, the critical ingredient of innovation is uncertainty. Innovation, by definition, is creating something new. At the beginning, there will be lots of questions that can’t be answered. So how do you help a team move forward into uncertainty?

Last month at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, I was among a group of ambitious female entrepreneurs to hear from Dr Pamela Paresky on the power of valuing the unknown. As she said, in a world of uncertainty, leadership matters. And when you’re uncertain, you notice more.

Businesses are usually built on waves of innovation. First comes the initial idea on which the business is built. It may be a price difference from your competition, a new way of delivery, or a new segment of a growing market. But that first idea won’t be enough. To stay ahead of the competition, a business will have to continue to innovate. In the Alchemy of Growth, Mehrdad Baghai talked about three necessary horizons of innovation.

Some of your team will need to stay focused on delivering that first core business. Others will need to be thinking about the horizons to come.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so it’s important to seed your business with the thought that failure in innovation is OK. It’s more than OK: it’s what is required so long as failure is fast and the team is able to move on with the lessons learned.

Here is what I’ve learned from experience:

  • Some of your team will be more comfortable with innovation than others: figure out how to tell them apart. We use Colour Insights as one useful tool
  • Run small experiments constantly. Know what you’re testing and how you’re going to measure success
  • You may need to take educate your clients on why the new idea makes sense. If you’re truly first, this education piece can take years, particularly in business-to-business sales. Sometimes it’s better to be a fast follower
  • Develop internal processes that support innovative thinking. That could be as simple for making time each quarter to think about what you should stop doing and what you should start doing in the business
  • Any new process is uncomfortable so give it time to evolve
  • Start a business book club so your team brings in ideas from outside the business
  • Learn from the past. Business strategist Kaihan Krippendorf has identified 36 strategies from ancient Chinese metaphors to help seize the competitive edge
  • Help your team value uncertainty. One of the purposes of networks is that they magnify what they are seeded with; but they must be seeded. Seed uncertainty as a vital part of innovation and you’ll be helping your team get out of their comfort zone.

By Julie Walters, founder of Raremark, and winner of Best Investment in a High-Growth Woman Founder at the UK Business Angels Association.