BREAKTHROUGH COLUMN: How To Innovate When ‘the sky is falling’

WHEN I was an HR executive, I often heard forecasts of doom and gloom from top management but only partly believed these scenarios since these usually justified cost cutting measures. Well this time, the cries that “the sky is falling” are true.

A story from the Associated Press published on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer recently says practically the same thing. Oil prices are rapidly going up. Earthquakes, cyclones and floods are killing tens of thousands of people worldwide. Food is becoming scarcer and more expensive. Wars and internal strife continue to rage in many countries and terrorism haunts many civilized societies. The sky is falling and we are running around as scared as the chicken in the fable.

This is ironic considering the idiom “The sky is falling,” means a wrong assumption that a catastrophe is going to happen. This evolved from an old fable about a chicken who believes the sky is falling because an acorn fell on its head.

The moral lesson this fable wants to project is that we should not be “chicken” and worry unnecessarily about something that may not come true.

The Associated Press article ends the report by asking (and answering) the question, “Why the vulnerability? After all, this is the 21st century, not a more primitive past when little in life was assured. Surely people know how to fix problems now. Maybe. And maybe this is what the 21st century will be about—a great unraveling of some things long taken for granted.

We are experiencing an “unraveling” the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. It is taking us out of our comfort zone and complacency and rocking the foundations of our concept of success in this modern world.

In these times, innovation may just be our saving grace. Some people though are averse to further risk taking by banking on new and untested ideas. The thing is, we can no longer bank on old and tested ideas since they worked only in the context of the old order. The old order is no longer here. We now have a new disorderly environment where risks, most of which are unpredictable, abound.

So how does one innovate when “the sky is falling?

1. Be open to new ideas.

Many people naturally resist new ideas especially if these do not come from them. To them, I want to say that you no longer have the luxury of resistance. You may not want to crawl under a dirty table if you dropped your fork. However, would you think twice before taking cover under that same table when an earthquake hits? Surely not. The problem is, some people are so dense they wouldn’t know when an earthquake hits them. They definitely will be buried under the rubble (metaphorically speaking) when the time comes if they continue insisting to only support ideas that emanate from their own brains.

2. Be quick to learn and apply your learning.

Slow learners are out, fast learners are in. Be quick to pick up and use new ideas. Your ability to learn fast and apply your learning quickly are what will keep you and your organization ahead of the pack. Would you want to partner with a company that still uses old technology? Or would you rather partner with one that uses the latest technology? Of course, you would like the latter especially in this day and age where changes in technologies happen practically every day.

3. Crank up your ideas factory.

With only one out of 20,000 ideas making it to the market, it is crucial to generate ideas not just by the hundreds but by the thousands. Thus, it is important to bring out new ideas yourself as well as open the lid on bright ideas in your coworkers, suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders. In fact, many innovative ideas come from customers especially on how to improve your product or service. Just recently, an article came out in Yahoo which reported that women with long nails find it hard to use iPhone because its touchscreen only responds to electrical charges emitted by bare fingertips. And this applies to other gadgets as well that uses the same principle. This could be a good tip off to designers of similar gadgets.

4. Know and act on the belief that there is always opportunity in crisis.

In times of crisis, there will always be pockets of opportunity. This philosophy was applied by Warren Buffet to his advantage. During periods in the U.S. when the stock market would plummet, that would be the time when Buffet would buy stocks in companies that he believed would last the long haul. The validity of this philosophy is evident now in his billions which make him the second richest man in the world. So, sharpen your eyes in these days of gloom; you may yet glimpse a glimmer of golden opportunities.

5. Do your homework properly.

Yes, an innovative idea may be exciting but it always pays to do the necessary research and pencil pushing to make it into a reality. Innovation involves not just the passion of ideation but the discipline of preparation, analysis and proper implementation. The discipline is what weeds out the fanciful ideas to expose the innovative ones. Involve others in doing the homework; in this phase, critics should be welcomed so that all facets of the idea are studied. The Six Thinking Hats methodology of Edward de Bono is a useful tool in making sure everything is considered in a project.

So, what do you do when “the sky is falling?” Innovate to ensure that you are “covered” with bright ideas that will take you and your organization well into the next century.

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in Asian Quality, July – August 2008 issue.

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Founding Editor, People at Work, Business, Phiippine Daily Inquirer

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