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  • 12.02.14

How To Keep Innovating During Uncertainty

If you have a plan in place to deal with it, and the right tools and skills, you can handle gray-area situations with ease.

How To Keep Innovating During Uncertainty
[Photo: Flickr user jwltr freiburg]

“Innovate or die.” Any astute company has heard this before and heeds the warning. But while there are countless books, articles, and tools available to help you do it, there is one crucial facet that we feel makes or breaks any innovation project. We affectionately call this “the grayzone.”

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The grayzone is the time we spend in between “what we know now” and “where we need to be.” This territory is a dive into the unknown, often accompanied by optimism, excitement, and joy, as well as deep uncertainty, discomfort, and tension.

Entering and making it through this zone are an essential part of the innovation process, and avoiding it lessens the chance of creating anything new. Even for the most seasoned innovators, this can be quite daunting. As a team that travels this territory regularly, we have identified some key activities and mindsets to prepare and help you through your next foray in one piece:

1. Pledge To Take The Plunge

Decide to do it and hold yourself accountable. If working with others, spend the extra time aligning at the beginning. Foster trust and commitment amongst one another. You are embarking upon a journey into the wilderness together.

2. Keep An Open Mind

“The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know” -Einstein

It’s essential to have goals and benchmarks, but rigid structures don’t leave room for growth. Pencil in time to adapt, switch course, and embrace the unexpected. Without this, innovation doesn’t happen.

One client came to the table with ample devotion, money, and confidence, but we misidentified this confidence as preparedness and willingness to enter and enjoy the grayzone.

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Much to the contrary, their confidence came from prowess in their specific niches and ability to navigate the status quo. But when faced with the challenges of innovating from scratch, a process entirely foreign to them, their approaches and mental schemas didn’t deliver as expected. This cracked their confidence, created cognitive dissonance, and aroused criticism.

Tension escalated quickly, nearly to the point of no return. To mitigate, the team took a break, rebuilt rapport outside the context of the grayzone, and rebuilt confidence with an easy activity before going back in.

When innovation happens, it’s hard to predict how large its impact may be; part of the beauty is that it’s regenerative. New ideas beget new ideas, and the ripple effect is endless. Value adds come out of the woodwork in unusual and unfamiliar places. This is part of the fun.

3. Get To Know The Team

Understanding culture and personalities of the team you’re working with is of utmost importance. Each new team is like a foreign country–they have a specific culture, or perhaps they’re just beginning to establish it. Nevertheless, “citizens” always have distinct personalities, hierarchies, and tendencies.

Even when a team is ready to hit the ground running to meet aggressive timelines, it is crucial to adapt culturally and establish trust. This extra effort at the front end is the very fabric that holds teams together in the grayzone.

In one instance, a team’s timeline was so aggressive that this step was skipped. When we hit the grayzone, hierarchies appeared and became problematic. Furthermore, attachment to their status quo crippled trust in another method and with those that supported it.

To avoid this, prepare your teams to learn without harming the ego and establish trust and intuitive work flow as teams get acquainted with each person’s strengths. Always spend the time to build or rebuild trust and rapport, and prepare everyone for what the grayzone feels like and its value.

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4. Lower The Stakes For Failure

Fear of failure can hinder even the most seemingly fertile innovation climate. The team needs to feel safe to put forth and experiment with new ideas and approaches without critical judgment attached. Fostering such a climate lies as much in the hands of leadership as it does with each team member. When a wave of doubt or deadlock strikes trust that it will pass. If no one panics, it always does.

The grayzone is, by our definition, leaving the comfort zone. To leave, the status quo must be put aside. It is the ominous storm cloud over your innovation parade. Though hitting milestones and meeting standards is paramount to any successful program, the great balancing act requires adaptability and trust.

5. Bring Tools

If you were preparing to go into the jungle, you’d bring survival gear. The grayzone is a similar adventure–it requires preparation and tools to survive.

Tools and techniques like centered design methods provide the touchstones for sense making while in the grayzone. Hire an experienced advisor or consulting team to provide these and guide your use of them. Lastly, make your schedule a tool by planning for flexibility.

6. Announce Your Arrival

Palpable discomfort is a first symptom–talk about it openly. Communication is key. Align internally beforehand to prepare everyone for what this discomfort will feel like. Make sure everyone is confident in the importance of this stage of innovation.

7. Keep Calm And Continue

Enjoy it–you’re doing something different and learning new things, which has inherent value. Focus on the benefits of learning the new process in the present to dull worry or fear surrounding outcomes.

Lauren Turk is a business strategist and creative consultant for Pull Experience Inc., co-founder of The New History Inc. and a musician in Los Angeles.

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John Sundermeyer is the co-founder and director of design at Pull Experience Inc.

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