What your personal relationships can teach you about innovation

For so many of us, innovative thinking feels like foreign territory. As if the concept of innovation and the process does not belong to us. There’s nothing that implies that it’ll be smooth sailing or comfortable, or even something that comes naturally. What is innovation and the vagueness of the word doesn’t help, either, since the success criteria changes from one idea to another. For all these reasons, I witness so many times that innovation makes people anxious, even though the outcome sounds exciting. How can we get comfortable with innovative thinking? How can we reduce the tension and anxiety that comes with being asked (usually by our management team) to be more innovative? I have been working in this field for over 15 years now. Over time I realized that we all are well-equipped to handle innovation and can be successful at it. I promise!

In our sessions at The Green Room Collective, we use a lateral thinking tool we call Related Worlds. The idea is to seek solutions in different fields and industries that share similar principles with the challenges we face. In one of our cases, we had a breakthrough in innovation with a medical product by examining a crocodile eye. No kidding! I have been on the hunt for the perfect Related-World example for successful innovation projects, and recently, it occurred to me that our personal relationships are a match made in heaven. By looking at how we approach our personal relationships, we can get a better grasp on how to develop innovative practices. The same relationship advice you may have gotten from a family member or friend can help you become more innovative.

Trust your instincts and jump right in

Every innovation starts with commitment, just like any relationship. Our social circle may discourage us, trying to protect us from failure and pain. These comments usually come from the most experienced people, like our family members, and will make you stop and think. The same rule applies to an innovation project. You might hear discouraging comments from seasoned colleagues like, “We did something similar that failed. If you invest in this and it fails, you will risk your career.” But what if you feel strongly, or are passionate, about the project?

I think about the times when I had strong feelings and jumped right into that relationship, and found that all the bad omens were wrong. I followed my heart and trusted my instincts. The same situation arose when I was leading product innovation projects. I was working for an air freshener brand back then. My objective was to relaunch the brand, by introducing a whole new portfolio of innovative products. I had my eyes on one specific product that I believed would be a huge hit in the market. I was a junior then, and I was told that the category was so new that it wasn’t ready for such a premium product line. I knew in my heart that the product had all the right features for the consumer, and that they would be willing to pay premium. Long story short, I was lucky that the financials had worked, and I was able to convince senior management to take this risk. The results were amazing, so much so that we were out of stock and retailers had to hide the product in the back of their shelves for their loyal customers.

The innovators of our time, from Einstein to Zuckerberg, never yielded to the nay sayers, and committed themselves fully and completely to passion projects that eventually became game changers. Start with a commitment, trust your instincts and jump right in. 

Don’t give up at the first hiccup

The first months, even the first year of a relationship don’t always turn out the way we expect. It’s often a shaky period where you are getting to know the other person, observing how you both react to certain situations, how you are in your social circles, at home and in other environments. I recall lots of fights, disagreements and disappointments in this phase of my relationships. Maybe you do, too. I think these hiccups in relationships are a rite of passage. Every bump on the road is an opportunity to improve and nurture the relationship.

That is why I find it necessary for every new innovative project to have its own hiccups for it to be deemed a successful one. See it as an investment, not a cost. Mindset is everything, whether in innovation or a relationship. Unfortunately, most companies do not have this perspective. Failures or bumps are not accepted nor appreciated.

Remember what Edison said, “Every failure, gets us closer to success.” If this principle did not apply, none of the scientists we know would have been able to come up with great inventions. There will be hard days with lots of ups and downs, but nothing worthwhile comes easy, right? Quitting is easy, but the reward comes from grunting it out even when you don’t feel like it. There would be more successful innovations in the market, I’m sure of it, if more of us refused to give up at the first hiccup and continued to nurture the project the way we do our most valued relationships.

Be a team, nurture and have clear expectations

It takes two to make a relationship work. Recognize that, like in a relationship, business innovation is about partnership. Successful innovation requires many hands and partners. A relationship requires two people working together to achieve goals, since two is always greater than one. Innovation has it is ups and downs. If you want to survive these waves, the best solution is to have a strong team that you know will lift the project up, and stick by it in times of difficulty. This team will also provide the momentum, inject the enthusiasm when you or other members run out of steam.

In our innovation projects, one of the creative behaviors we use often is Greenhousing. This behavior is also where we get the inspiration for our company’s name The Green Room Collective. The early stage of an innovation project requires constant nurturing, as though it were a baby. Everyone’s contribution makes the innovation that much stronger. There is a reason why people say it takes a village to raise a baby. For those parents out there, discussions about how best to nurture and help your baby grow isn’t a foreign concept. In the world of innovation, it is also crucial that your team have a shared vision of what success looks like. That becomes your north star in times of turbulence and sometimes in times of exuberance. 

Be open to change

My relationships have never been static, changes along the way have continually put me to test.  There were times where I resisted the change and romanticized old times, old flames, and failed to adapt, which resulted in a failed relationship. The times where I embraced the results of these tests, learned and evolved with them were the times my relationships got stronger.

In such a fast-paced economy, the innovations we drum up today will need changes to stay relevant and be sustainable. However, I know how tempting it can be for organizations to hold onto past successes rather than embrace the unknown and the seas of change. I want to give you an example from the Coca-Cola Company. They started off with just one brand of Coca-Cola. By adding new product categories and new packages to their portfolio, they’ve successfully adapted to variations in consumer diets and lifestyles over the years.

Put it to the test

They say that the best way to get to know someone is by taking a vacation with them. Many years back I went on a vacation with my then-boyfriend. It was our first one together. I was forced to expose my relationship to the outside world with all its good, bad and ugly parts. At the time, I felt like our relationship was vulnerable to the feedback of the world, and was met with, what I perceived at the time as weird looks or questioning eyes. I learned more than I expected about myself and the other person when I put my relation to the test.

The best way to try out an innovation idea is usually concept testing or focus groups. But innovative ideas require real-life tests. Rapid prototyping the idea is like going on a trip in your relationship. You see all the aspects of consumers’ interaction with the product or service. Again, the good, bad and ugly.

One of The Green Room Collective sessions is called Bounce and Build where we share new ideas and their prototypes with consumers. We put the ideas to the test, and every time, consumers brilliantly question every aspect of it, giving very honest feedback, even providing suggestions on improvements. They are the sound of reason and their contributions make our work that much stronger.

Give it your everything but know when to let go

Like most of us, I have never started a relationship with the intention that it will end someday. I always had good intentions. Over the years, I have accepted the fact that some relationships can have the “happily ever after” stamp, while others have a The End sign attached to them. This is a normal part of life.

We work with various clients as TGRC and our experience shows us that once innovation projects get traction, the commitment is unbreakable. Sometimes due to over-commitment no one wants to upset a teammate, and it takes a lot to have the courage to point out that “THE KING IS NAKED,” like the boy did in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Once, I was assigned the launch of a new beverage category with a big budget and commitment from senior leadership. The consumer test results were acceptable but still, as a consumer, I felt like it wasn’t something I would ever buy on a regular basis. I could feel that after a lot of improvements, hiccups, and the evolution of the product, the team was feeling that something just wasn’t right. What happened? Since there was so much commitment, we just went with it and none of us, including myself, had the courage to stop the train. We ended up launching a product that eventually expired on the shelf. If we had developed an exit strategy, I bet we could have come up with a stronger innovation using the same resources.

Innovation sounds scary and feels like a huge unknown. However, we are all familiar with navigating our own personal relationships. I believe that by applying the steps we take in building our relationships to developing innovative projects, we’ll approach the task with so much more ease and confidence.

To get a sense of the principles that guide successful innovation in the real world, here’s a look at our case studies.