It was our weekly sales meeting and we were clustered around the Head of Department’s desk to review new work in our pipeline.
The pipeline wasn’t looking bad, but it wasn’t great either. The Head of Department had joined the team a few years earlier with an entrepreneurial background and many great ideas for the future direction of our team.
We had big plans to develop new products and services in our market and backed up this intention by hiring new people with specialist expertise. Most of the recruits had a track record of innovating new products and services.
And yet here we were looking at a pipeline that didn’t reflect this bold new world.
So what was going on? I could only answer this question once I left the firm a few years later:
The illusion of innovation
In business we need to be more creative and original. These are qualities that help us to progress and stay ahead in a competitive marketplace.
My old employer was no different. We’d recently opened an Innovation Hub and established a Dragons’ Den style competition that rewarded people with new business ideas.
Yet the business was built on a foundation of unspoken principles that valued stability, predictability and control more than risk taking. There were sophisticated structures, processes and controls that made it the slick and efficient organisation that it was.
But the more powerful undercurrent was in the culture. As a team we were expected to create new products and services without being allowed to fail. We also had ambitious sales targets.
It was a combination that, without us realising it, made us more conservative in our thinking and our choices.
You can’t have your cake and eat it
So why didn’t I challenge this status quo? Why didn’t I tell the right people that we might not get it right at first or that things might get worse before they get better? Why didn’t I stand up and tell everyone you can’t have your cake and eat it?
There are two reasons. The first reason was a lack of awareness. The observations I am sharing with you now come with the luxury of hindsight and I didn’t have a manager or mentor telling me to go out there and experiment and take responsibility for the consequences.
The second reason was exhaustion. My performance was measured on doing more of the same, more efficiently. To do something different would most likely lead to a dip in my numbers and so jeopardise my career progression.
The only real possibility was to do the risk taking in my spare time, but since I was already working in my evenings and many weekends I simply didn’t have the energy. This is one of the reasons why I think resilience is essential for any Challenger leader.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
As businesses it is logical that we want to minimise risk. Prevailing wisdom says that we need sufficient levels of stability and control to be a flourishing, successful business.
Yet I now know that it is also our ability to embrace uncertainty and lean in to situations where we are not sure of the outcome that enable us to find the break-through we are looking for.
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