THE DARK SIDE OF INNOVATION
THE DARK SIDE OF INNOVATION
Let’s imagine for a moment you are caught in the crosshairs of a game-changing idea. One of those original brain bursts that fires through your synaptic circuitry maybe once or twice a decade.
Whatever the idea is, let’s just agree it’s beyond brilliant. It could be a jaw-dropping new product, a breakthrough service delivery model or a superb marketing concept.
Now the real work begins.
You have to go about the business of sharing news of this significant advance with the key people who surround you. Deep down, you’re praying the people you care about most can also embrace and excitedly share this new vision burning inside you.
On a call last week with a U.S. based business owner – let’s call him “Donnie” - he is absolutely convinced his new brand identity and strategy will create undeniable distinction from thousands of his competitors offering similar products and services. This new approach is completely aligned with Donnie’s personal values, reflects core elements of his beliefs and his character. This new brand strategy would also provide a solid foundation for an unlimited number of stories he and his team could share for a very long time.
Would it shock you to know that Donnie’s team is somewhat hesitant to saddle up and ride this new branding pony?
If you can relate to what “Donnie” is going through, you need to know you are not alone. Sixty years ago this month, an identical story unfolded on one of the biggest stages in the sports and entertainment world. This is precisely what occurred when a French-Canadian goaltender tried to help fellow professional puck stoppers see the benefit of his modern-day invention that challenged the status quo.
This new product idea would instantly make a dangerous job a helluva lot safer and a lot more fun. There would also be higher productivity and performance with less downtime due to injury. And the company that writes your pay-check would be in a better position to achieve superior results and bigger prizes.
By now, you might be fooled into thinking that this no-brainer burst of innovation brilliance would be openly welcomed and applauded by management, fellow employees and the industry as a whole.
But, that not how this movie plays out.
Our tale unfolds at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden. On November 1, 1959, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante overcame the objections of his boss and became hockey’s first netminder to permanently adopt the face mask as part of his regular equipment. To put things in context, it’s important to remember, that by the time Plante slips on his mask, the sport of ice hockey is already about 100 years old. You read that right. It took nearly a century before someone figured out it might not be a good idea to ...get ready for it ... waiting …. waiting … to get ... HIT SQUARE IN THE FACE BY A FROZEN FREAKIN’ HOCKEY PUCK!!!
On the fateful evening before a rowdy crowd at the Garden, Plante was cut for 7 stitches on a shot from Rangers sniper Andy Bathgate. The game was delayed for close to 30 minutes since NHL teams did not carry back-up goalies on the roster at that time. Once he was stitched up, Plante ignored the vociferous objections of veteran coach Toe Blake, insisting that he would only return to the ice if he could wear the homemade mask he had been experimenting with for the past few months. The stubborn, crusty old bench boss had no choice but to relent and Plante returned to action, leading the Canadiens to a 4-1 victory.
Jacques Plante would eventually help Montreal win a 5th consecutive Stanley Cup and along the way he enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame career that spanned 19 pro seasons and 7 Vezina trophies as the NHL’s top goaltender. The impact of his legacy is still being felt today.
To this day, Jacques Plante is still regarded as hockey’s equivalent to Einstein, Edison and Ford; one of the truly great innovators in a sport that deeply values machismo, order and tradition over artistry, experimentation and change. What Plante learned about the introduction of new ideas back in the late fifties, is just as true today:
Frequently lost in the achievement stories of legends like Einstein, Edison, Ford and Jacques Plante is humanity’s dark side when it comes to the subject of innovation. In each and every case, bureaucratic roadblocks and emotional obstacles erected by critics and naysayers came very close to killing ideas from Albert, Thomas, Henry and Jacques when their original concepts were still in their very early and embryonic state. That’s what transpired as Plante was roundly mocked and criticized by his contemporaries for daring to break with hockey tradition. Flabbergasting as this may sound, even fellow NHL goaltenders like Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk, Chicago’s Glenn Hall and Toronto’s Johnny Bower dug in their heels and waited, for a decade or more, before finally wearing facial protection.
Change is not the problem. RESISTANCE to change is the real problem.
Using the lessons of history, you can objectively recognize that every major leap forward – in any century - has come through our willingness to eventually adopt and embrace innovation.
But, dig a little deeper and you will also discover that every new scientific, technical or cultural innovation also creates very real tension between dreamers like Donnie and defenders of the established order.
Forward-thinking leaders must expect and anticipate an emotional tug-of-war between the opposing forces of innovation and incumbency.
From Gandhi seeking to gain independence for India, Jackie Robinson breaking the 'colour barrier' in baseball, Bill Gates envisioning a personal computer in every home or Steve Jobs thinking we could have a playlist, camera and a 1001+ other applications on our phones; history reveals that the smothering forces of ego, greed, machismo and fear always threaten to kill any form of business, cultural or social innovation unless leaders like Plante are imbued with steely resolve to go ahead and do the hard things to see their dazzling ideas eventually sparkle and gain acceptance.
Are you ready and willing to exhibit plenty of patience, courage and strength of conviction while facing the many critics and naysayers?
Can you muster the intestinal fortitude and stand alone if need be; confident in the outcome of your decisions and direction?
In much the same manner as any hockey goaltender, leadership can be a lonely existence especially when big-time decisions are being made on big-time ideas. For a guy like “Donnie” it’s highly unlikely he will get answers from the kind of things that management consultants and MBA’s tend to worship. The types of innovation that dramatically change and shape our world for the better or alter the direction of a company, do not depend on big data, marketing metrics, white papers, case studies, focus groups, CRM, KPI’s and SEO. No matter how loudly the measurement hounds like to bark, it can be refreshing to know there is still a place in this world for leaders who can trust their own intuition and bring brilliant ideas to the world at large.
Jacques Plante displayed "beaucoup de courage" in being one of the few in the history of pro sports who refused to bend or pay heed to the natural and primal forces of illogical push back and resistance to change.
Fortune has always favored the bold and the brave, willing to stand their ground for the sake of a big idea that is bigger than themselves.
When the day comes that your big ideas is put to the test, how much courage and conviction will you bring to the decision-making arena?