Uncertainty is an Innovator Superpower

Uncertainty is kryptonite for corporate managers, however, and that needs to be addressed.

In this, the buzzword apocalypse, we’re all innovating, being disrupted, and boldly marching into a future where everything will be new, different, and better. Except that we’re not. CEOs may be talking the talk, but most organizations aren’t ready to risk walking the walk. This, unfortunately, makes sense.

There are two key barriers: a lack of training and an aversion to risk. Career success in a big organization is usually tied to performing clearly defined tasks well. Successful innovation is often random and messy.

The future is hard to predict and there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Too many folks think working with innovation is either a matter of trying hard enough – or something to be avoided. It is hard to blame them.

The “trying to plan your way out of uncertainty” trap

A big corporate recently announced the launch of a startup accelerator with a difference. Their innovation: they will choose the participating companies carefully. They will devote all of 2018 to selecting the right handful of startups so they can avoid picking the wrong ones.

Any intern at an accelerator could tell the corporate in question that they’re wasting their time, but the trap they’ve fallen into is difficult for many corporates to avoid. The media make it sound like there are great startups everywhere, but startups are really hard to build. My guess is that there are more startup accelerators than great startups.

The gap between the C-Suite and middle management

The brave speeches CEOs give about innovation often mention the need to push decision-making further down into the organization. But their employees aren’t stupid. They know how big companies work. They know that innovation is a risky business with plenty of opportunities to guess wrong. They also know that mistakes get punished.

Did you really say Steve Jobs?

Poor Steve Jobs gets named over and over in these speeches, but no one ever talks about the Newton. (The what? Exactly. Go Google it.) They seldom mention that his own board of directors fired him. They assume that no one in the audience has read how he could be a nightmare as a boss.

Acknowledge the lack of incentives for the people taking the risks

Middle managers aren’t stupid. They know the odds of hitting a homerun like the iPod are absurdly long. They know innovation often requires working in a minefield of conflicting stakeholder interests. They know success takes time – and that any success produced by the risks they take likely will come on their successor’s watch.

Acknowledge their fear that innovation is dangerous for their career prospects. Give them room to make mistakes. Praise them publicly for taking risks.

Train them

Teach your middle managers to make decisions on the basis of imperfect data. Few of the people who will have to do the innovating have any training in innovation beyond the occasional magazine article. Send them to hands-on workshops. Have them work with actual startups.

Network them

Expand their personal networks to include people who effectively manage uncertainty. Most of the people they know work at the same company. Startups and innovators are used to uncertainty, to not having all the answers. Have your middle managers work with them as mentors, startup competition judges, and at corporate-startup matchmaking events to familiarize them with uncertainty – at a safe arm’s distance.

Let them self-select

Let your innovators volunteer. According to the Kauffmann Foundation, the most successful entrepreneurs are over 40. Every firm has a few risk takers hidden amongst the risk-averse majority. They often leave big corporations that can’t or won’t innovate to create the innovation they wanted to see.

If you train them, network them, and give them the opportunity, they may turn uncertainty into a superpower for you, instead watching them walk away to use their superpowers for themselves or someone else.