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Comfortable in the Uncomfortable by James Hurman

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Putting the wrong people on an innovation team can doom it from the outset. The best picks are those who, above all, cope well with ambiguity.

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When the world’s leading start-up accelerators are choosing companies to fill the rarified few positions available in each cohort of their programmes, the most important factor is never how good their business idea is.

It’s how good the team is.

Techstars, one of the biggest and best global accelerator programmes has an explicit order of importance for evaluating the potential of startups:

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Accelerators have evolved this way for good reason. Innovation is hard. Having an idea is the easiest part - navigating the complex and challenging path to seeing an idea successfully into the world is much, much more difficult. It takes a particular kind of person – and the reality is that not everyone is that type of person.

After six years working with many of New Zealand’s largest organisations on innovation projects, one of the most critical things we’ve learned is just how important it is to put the right people on the team.

Not ‘experienced’ people. Not ‘knowledgeable’ people. Not ‘intelligent’ people. Not ‘hard-working’ people. In innovation, these are nice-to-haves.

The people who you need on an innovation team are people who, above all, cope well with ambiguity. People who can move forward quickly, confidently, happily and productively even when the path forward is very unclear.

This is because, while traditional projects have a beginning, an end and a middle, innovation projects have a beginning, an end and a ‘muddle’.

Normal business operations are linear and predictable. Experts have executed the process many times before, and there’s little ambiguity or risk involved in following the process toward an outcome that’s generally pretty clear from the outset.

Innovation is very different – the process is much less linear and much more exploratory. The outcome is absolutely unclear at the outset, and becomes slowly clearer through the process. Every potential idea or direction has a large element of the unknown. Ambiguity is the norm.

This is the muddle.

It starts near the beginning of an innovation journey and lasts until near the end.

So if you’re uncomfortable with ambiguity, innovation is a difficult and unsettling process.

People can be excellent at executing on normal business operations – but destructive in innovation processes because they interpret ambiguity and risk as signs that things are going wrong.

In a normal project, ambiguity means you’re lost. It means you’re in danger of going off the rails. It’s a signal to slow down, or to stop.

So when ambiguity strikes in an innovation process, the wrong sort of person will reflexively pull the handbrake. And they’ll keep pulling it every step of the way.

In our experience, the number one killer of innovation is slow, stunted progress, usually caused when people react to ambiguity by agonising over the wrong things. Momentum is the oxygen of innovation. When starved of that oxygen, innovation programmes inevitably die.

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At the beginning of an innovation journey, one thing we should have clarity on is the problem we’re trying to solve.

That’s the beginning.

Then, we’re into the muddle. The process of exploring, ideating, developing and validating potential solutions.

Throughout these stages, ambiguity takes many forms.

Exploring and ideating is often a process of looking around, in a very open-minded way, for potential solutions. This is far from a clear process or exact science. It’s a bit like archeology – we know there’s something buried, but we don’t know what it is or where it is. So we dig around, often for periods of necessary fruitlessness, until we find something of value.

For every lightbulb moment when we find a great idea, there’s usually a long period of searching, while we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. This is the normal, necessary, hard work of creativity.

Then when we have ideas, they usually come with a shopping list of potential problems or risks.

Again, this is completely normal. Potential problems and risks are not signs that an idea is bad. Rather, points to be worked through and overcome in the fullness of time.

But those who are uncomfortable with ambiguity see problems and risks as reasons not to proceed with ideas – reasons to say no.

The point of a good innovation process is ultimately to figure out what not to do. To learn which ideas might successfully solve the problem, and to jettison ideas which won’t. But cutting off potentially game-changing ideas too early means that we drastically reduce our potential for breakthrough solutions.

And the best ideas usually come with many potential issues baked in. Albert Einstein went to the extent of saying, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”. Most ubiquitous inventions, including the light bulb and the telephone, were initially met with choruses of scepticism and resistance.

The development and validation stages that follow the having of ideas is where we seek to resolve the problems and manage down the risks associated with those ideas. This is a key part of creativity and problem-solving.

No one’s saying it’s not a little uncomfortable to pursue ideas where there’s a sense of jeopardy. But we need people who are ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable’, and who can resist pulling the handbrake and let the process see its course.

Discomfort with ambiguity can also lead people to wish for the early discovery of transformational ideas that require very little time, money, resource or organisational effort to execute. On many occasions we’ve seen clients who’ve publicly accepted that innovation is hard, but who privately hope it won’t be, and who consequently reject ideas that they can see will come at a cost. This is hopeless - effortless innovation is a myth. Any transformational idea requires some kind of transformation, and transformation is far from effortless.

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At the beginning of an innovation journey, one thing we should have clarity on is the problem we’re trying to solve.

Being selective about who you put on an innovation team shouldn’t be interpreted as a commentary on anyone’s value. People can be enormously valuable to an organization and destructive on innovation projects. And people who are very good at innovation are often lacking in other areas.

Just like any discipline, there are some people who are naturally good at innovation and others who aren’t. The job of leadership is spotting who’s who.

In our experience, those qualities are:

People who are productive on an innovation team:

  1. They’re comfortable, happy and productive working in ambiguity
  2. They’re confident moving and decision-making quickly
  3. They habitually see the potential value of ideas, and move forward with confidence that the potential problems can be overcome along the way
  4. They default to ‘thinking from the customer back’ – they evaluate ideas and directions on the basis of ‘would this be great for the customer?’ and see their job as figuring out how to deliver that in a way that’s operationally and commercially feasible.
  5. They view novel concepts as opportunities to innovate – they don’t need to know that something’s ‘been done successfully before’ in order to assess its value
  6. They’re good at ‘accepting risk’, then problem-solving to manage down the risk


People who are destructive on an innovation team:

  1. They’re uncomfortable working in ambiguity - their reflex is to fret and slow progress down
  2. They’re confident moving carefully and methodically, but feel uneasy when things are moving fast
  3. They habitually see the potential problems with ideas and find it hard to get past them
  4. They default to ‘thinking from the business out’ – they evaluate ideas and directions on the basis of ‘is this operationally or commercially simple?’ and see their job as defending the business from potential difficulty
  5. They view novel concepts as unproven and risky – they want to know that something has been done successfully before in order to assess its value
  6. They’re quick to identify risk and see risk as something to be avoided rather than managed

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