Jane Linder on Innovation’s Steely Spine

Jane LinderThe following is a guest post by Jane Linder, author of Spiral Up: …and Other Management Secrets Behind Wildly Successful Initiatives (AMACOM 2007). She is writing about how managers can drive innovation during the recession.

What have we learned over the past 15 months? In “normal” times, confidence accounts for about half of the value in the stock market. There are two kinds of banks in the country—those that line up to take the stimulus money and those that prefer to work things out on their own. The experts can be dead wrong—did diversification protect your 401K? Some people who appear successful are thieves.

I’m going out on a limb here: this recession is the best opportunity we’re going to have in our lifetimes to figure out what it really takes to thrive. The lessons may be brutal, but at least they are clear. And these are not the lessons of self-indulgent, complacent idea generation. They are hard-won, gut-level lessons about the steely sort of innovation that gives us a real future. Here goes…

Substance actually does matter. Creating the appearance of value may support an organization for a time, but it won’t last forever. Today’s harsh glare is revealing what actually works. It’s now easier than ever to distinguish bedrock from fluff.

Would you rather have your money in Citibank or Johnson Bank, for example? Johnson Bank just turned down a $100 million capital infusion from the US Treasury. According to executives of this privately-held, Racine-based bank, it didn’t need the money. It remains profitable.

There are new voids in the marketplace left by those “expert” solutions that turned out to be wrong and those highly regarded organizations that turned out to be shams. New entrants and nimble players will fill those gaps by restoring customers’ trust.

For example, before you buy insurance or invest in a bond, will you turn to the rating organizations that have been advising us how much risk we are assuming? Most people won’t trust a new rash of regulators to provide that information either. The market is wide open for a new solution that substitutes true insight for false control.

All the paeans to open innovation notwithstanding, this is a great time to tell the good business partners from the bad ones. Ask yourself who is introducing you to new customers and standing beside you when things get a little tight. Even more telling, ask yourself who is failing to keep their promises and trying to sneak out from under their commitments. Who is trying to leave you holding their bag? Will you ever share your best work with them again?

Customers are still spending money, but only on the things that really matter to them. Now that the din of abundance has quieted down, customers’ indelible needs are coming through. This is precious. By tuning our ears to the pitch of our customers’ deeper desires, we have half a chance of satisfying them.

If we ever thought innovation was a comfortable experience, well, we’ve learned. Ultimately, there are no substitutes for optimism and hard work. If you don’t have something to look forward to, look harder. Figure out what you want and go for it. The bedrock way: with integrity. Don’t give up. That’s what it takes to thrive. Game on.

Dr. Jane Linder is the author of Spiral Up and Outsourcing for Radical Change. She has worked as a senior executive at Accenture and as a professor at Harvard Business School. Currently she is an owner and managing director of NWN Corporation, the fastest growing IT services company in the US.

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