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Innovating with an established ecosystem

Photo by fmgbain via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Starting a new organization is an entirely different task than innovating to change an existing organization.

Both are hard. But changing and existing organization is way harder.

For most of my career I’ve been in turnaround roles. Kristen and I have a little joke… My entire adult work life has seemed like one roller coaster ride after another.

Click, click, click, click… up we climb.

Click, click, click, click. My heart races.

Wait for it. Wait for it… Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Arms up. Screaming bloody murder. Thinking of the Tom Petty song, Free Falling.

Down the big hill we go.

Over and over again I’m left to help try to innovate our way out of the mess.

And, so far, I’ve been pretty successful at it by most people’s judgement.

How does one innovate within an existing ecosystem?

  1. Become Switzerland. There are political factions within any organization. If you want to get stuff done you need to be neither and empathetic both sides at the same time.
  2. Spike the football. When you do something that everyone is happy with its OK to just look into the camera and say, “Thank you very much. Woohoo! Hi mom!” I’ve seen a lot of people fail in an organization because they were afraid to take the credit for their own ideas doing well. Don’t be an idiot. It’s OK to be the guy to do good stuff. Spike the football.
  3. Own the data. Existing organizations are horrible at owning their data. I like to look at the results of a long-standing program that has had no results and say, “30 years of VBS and not a single new family? Why didn’t we just light that $300,000 on fire? At least we would have had a good BBQ.” When people are tied to tradition or the way they’ve always done things, sometimes you need to be the person with the frying pan who hits them in the head. Helping people in leadership own the data is the catalyst to getting stuff done in an existing organization.
  4. Be creative. Face it. A fist full of money and a fat belly has never created a single good idea. Have you seen Bing? No budget, no time, no research, shot in the dark… that’s when good stuff happens. That’s when the best ideas pop into your head. Creativity and innovation come out of suffering and frustration. These are your friends and allies, not your enemies.
  5. Opportunistic eyes. I keep a list of ideas I’ve got on ice. Then, when I’m in a meeting and everyone is scratching their heads looking for something new, bam… I’m pull out my concept. If I ran around screaming about every idea I had all the time I’d look like a mad scientist.

What are some ways you’ve learned to innovate within an existing ecosystem?

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One Response to Innovating with an established ecosystem

  1. Adam Lehman July 1, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Leapfrog your job description.
    Firmly march in a new direction without condemning the old. My current church tends to separate those serving in ministry onto islands instead of uniting them as a team. While I didn’t like that practice, I didn’t openly speak out against it. Instead, I created meetings combining various ministry leaders. I overstepped my job description and did some administrative work for the children’s ministry. I didn’t condemn, but i did march in a new direction.

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