First dates, innovation and guaranteed failure

Ruth Limkin - Arrow 7 and Arrow Board Member
Consulting Operations Manager for Prominence Pty Ltd.


First dates can be filled with possibility but they can also be filled with painful small talk. There can be moments that point to a happy future or moments we’d rather forget. They can be the stuff of legend, as bad first dates get told and retold with usually increasing mirth the greater the passage of time.

So what do first dates have to do with leading innovation?

For a start, innovation has solved the dilemma of time-wasting first dates.

Fast Company published a list in 2014 of the world’s top ten most innovative companies in social media[i]. Perhaps the boldest claim was about Tinder, which was lauded as ‘changing the dating game with a single swipe’.

The accolades continued, “Tinder tapped into a vein of discontent with traditional online dating and has single-handedly upended the concept of virtual courtship. Innovation No. 1? Building the app on top of users' existing social media presence, which streamlines the sign-up process and adds a measure of credibility to a potential sweetheart's identity. Innovation No. 2? Leveraging touch screens with its dead-simple "swipe left, swipe right" functionality for those without much time to waste on plenty of fish.”

At 400 million swipes per day (back in November 2013), there must be a lot of people without much time to waste.

If innovation can revolutionize matters of the heart, its power knows no bounds.

But as powerful as innovation is, leaders who forget one big thing are destined to fail at leading innovation.

And a key to understanding this one big thing and how its absence in leading innovation leads to failure, can be seen in another innovative social media company – Twitter.

Fast Company dubbed Twitter the number one innovative social media company in 2014.

They explained, “Video sharing and social media were two separate things before Vine showed up on Twitter. Forty million users later, Vine has become a culture in and of itself. Marketers are studying Vine for insights into what their consumers care about and how to reach them, and it is still growing in spite of Instagram big-footing its way into the marketplace. The six-second videos are often ingenious, beautiful, or both, and thanks to a new feature called "revining," added last summer, it is giving rise to a new breed of viral celebrities.”

And whether the idea of a new breed of viral celebrity fills you with awe or anguish, the power of innovation in the way our world communicates simply can’t be denied.

So imagine my curiosity when I came across an essay in October 2015 by economist, Harvard Business Review editor, thinker and commentator, Umair Haque, in which he has pronounced that Twitter is dying.

Himself a popular media figure, Haque speaks internationally, appears on global news networks and appears in leading newspapers, is an author who has released his second book, publishes at Medium and Harvard Business Review and has over two hundred thousand followers on Twitter (although that last accolade has a use by date if he is to be believed).

Haque’s commentary about twitter and the reasons why it is dying is remarkable for the fact that it has to be said at all.

He says,

“It’s early fall, and I’m at my favorite cafe in London. What the? Twitter’s a cemetery. Populated by ghosts. I call them the “ists”. Journalists retweeting journalists…activists retweeting activists…economists retweeting economists…once in a while a great war breaks out between this group of “ists” and that…but the thing is: no one’s listening…because everyone else seems to have left in a hurry.

...Here’s my tiny theory, in a word. Abuse. And further, I’m going to suggest in this short essay that abuse — not making money — is the great problem tech and media have. The problem of abuse is the greatest challenge the web faces today. It is greater than censorship, regulation, or (ugh) monetization. It is a problem of staggering magnitude and epic scale, and worse still, it is expensive: it is a problem that can’t be fixed with the cheap, simple fixes beloved by tech: patching up code, pushing out updates.

To explain, let me be clear what I mean by abuse. I don’t just mean the obvious: violent threats. I also mean the endless bickering, the predictable snark, the general atmosphere of little violences that permeate the social web…and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop.

… The social web became a nasty, brutish place. And that’s because the companies that make it up simply do not not just take abuse seriously…they don’t really consider it at all. Can you remember the last time you heard the CEO of a major tech company talking about…abuse…not ads? Why not? Here’s the harsh truth: they see it as peripheral to their “business models”, a minor nuisance, certainly nothing worth investing in, for theirs is the great endeavor of…selling more ads.

They’re wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central. It has significant chilling effects: given a tipping point, people will simply stop using a network, and walk away…and that appears to be what’s happening with Twitter.

... You can create the most perfect code in technological existence — but if all it’s used for is to relentlessly demean, bully, assault, torment, pick on, trample, bicker with, shout at people, well, it’s a pretty good sign that people aren’t using it for much of value. And that is a central point. When a technology is used to shrink people’s possibilities, more than to expand them, it cannot create value for them. And so people will simply tune it out, ignore it, walk away from it if they can.”

The whole essay is worth reading (see endnotes)[ii]

For those of who lead and shape organisations, communities, societies and families, it is a very good reminder. In the pursuit of innovation we are wise to remember why we care for it at all, and what will guarantee to make it fail.

If you want to fail at leading innovation, there is one big thing you must do.

Forget it’s about people.

As leaders, we pursue innovation for the sake of people.

Not for creativity alone.

Not for profit alone.

And certainly not for the sake of innovation itself.

We seek innovation because God is always doing new things, and we can partner with Him to create. We can seek new ways to improve health care because we care about the wellbeing of those in pain. We seek new ways to deliver charitable services because we care about the welfare of our city. We seek new ways to enhance church communities because we care about the family of faith. We seek new ways to build profitable businesses because we want to provide employment for people and create value for societies. We seek new ways to communicate the timeless gospel of good news in Christ because we care about people and want them to encounter Christ, his love and his eternal life.

People are the ‘why’ – the reason we seek to innovate.  The moment we lose sight of that, we are on the road to inevitable failure.

What does all of this mean for the way we lead innovation?

It means that people remain at the heart of every innovation we seek to lead.

We demonstrate this through the way we go about assessing, communicating and implementing innovation.

We assess innovation not just for how it might make things more efficient but what the cost will be to people. Does it impose a pain upon people that is unreasonable or does it simply require a stretch that we can compassionately lead through?

We communicate innovation regularly and repeatedly. We communicate that we are considering something new, we talk about why we are considering it, how we measure it, where people can find out more and how they can be involved in decisions that impact them. We communicate this once, twice or thirty times and in many different ways. After all, as a wise person once said to me, people are down on what they’re not up on. While the quickest way to fail at leading innovation is to poorly communicate, a clear, comprehensive and care-filled communications plan can change a critic to an advocate. I’ve seen it happen.

We implement innovation as a servant, not a tyrant. We partner with people, rather than imposing on them. By assessing innovation carefully, we discover the pain points of change and develop strategies and responses to either minimize the pain if possible, to amend the innovation if needed or to help people see why this pain is absolutely necessary to stave off worse future pain. By communicating innovation carefully, clearly and comprehensively, we bring people on a journey that allays fear and respects the different ways people process change. We create safety for people to ask questions, to express their misgivings and to feel heard. This whole process of assessment and communication is not a precursor to innovation implementation, but an essential phase. Then, when we are operationalizing the innovation, we can do so as leaders who have already established our collaborative approach, placing people at the centre of innovation. 

Leading innovation can be filled with possibility but it can also be filled with pain. There can be moments that point to a happy future or moments we’d rather forget. In the midst of this uncertainty, we pursue innovation because people remain at the heart of it all– and because people matter deeply.