The Hero’s journey of innovation
As a consultant for the past 20 years, I have helped many companies with their New Product Development – some brilliant, others disappointing. Professor Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School summarized my own frustrating experiences when he said, “There’s usually some process by which a potentially great idea gets prostituted into something lacklustre”.
This got me thinking, what are the key factors for success in NPD?
There are commonly 3 key strands of innovation that are talked about– Process, People and Politics.
We all know that great innovation must start with a ruthless clarity of the brand, and that it must move through a series of classic innovation process steps to ensure the product meets internal and external criteria.
Clearly, if any of these steps are missed or executed inappropriately then it starts the rot. A once great idea gets reduced to an undifferentiated, uninspiring launch that no-one believes in anymore.
For me the key is the person who leads the task. It is their power as a leader that ultimately makes or breaks a great innovation project.
In many ways running a successful NPD project is like a quest into unknown territory, where there are many obstacles on the way – but the potential of great rewards if one survives.
This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, ‘The hero with a thousand faces’ and his concept of ‘The Hero’s Journey’.
For those unaware of it, here is a summary (and illustrated by reference to Lord of the Rings):
The Hero’s world is thrown asunder – his paradise is lost (Frodo Baggins is given the ring by Bilbo). He is called to the quest but refuses. Eventually the hero commits to the quest, and then the teacher arrives (Gandalf arrives and guides him along his way); Then the hero has to cross the first threshold leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known (Frodo leaves the shire). On the road of trials, he fights many battles, combating monsters along the way some for real, some being his/her own limiting beliefs and demons that live inside his/her mind. The hero reaches a low point of self-doubt and is tempted to give up. Then the hero is reborn. For the transformation to take place, the person as he or she has been must be “killed” literally or figuratively so that the new self can come into being (Frodo is killed but the princess brings him back to life). Then there is the final big battle – the key quest is achieved (There is a climactic battle against Sauron’s army at the Black Gate of Mordor. Frodo destroys the ring. Sauron’s power is destroyed). Finally, the Hero returns from his journey to Paradise refound having been transformed into a better person.
Thus the leader of a project will face many challenges in the process. It’s up to them to ‘keep the faith’ and push-on through against detractors. If they do not, then the project will die (because organizations, like any organism, will naturally resist change).
There will be supporters and teachers along the way. It’s up to the project leader to ensure they get a group of supporters around them (usually by being an excellent storyteller who has the ability to clearly communicate a vision so powerfully that it takes people with them). The leader needs to keep on repeating the vision all the way through the process as it’s common for the supporters to also start to doubt the viability of the project in light of all the problems and issues that most projects face.
The mentor/coach/teacher is critical – it’s the person who the project leader turns to for support when they also have doubts.
My experience is that people who ‘play by rules’ of an organization rarely produce outstanding innovations. The most successful people I have seen have been brilliant at understanding the system; yet use their charm, intelligence and tenacity to navigate around the system.
As with any quest there are dangers, but the rewards definitely go to those who have courage, are prepared to take the risks and persevere.
Image borrowed from tvtropes.org – thanks