Impalas and Innovation
They are fast – with a top speed clocked at nearly 50 MPH. They can (almost) fly – jumping 10 feet high and 30 feet in distance with a single bound. Their bodies are covered in a super suit — with extra thick skin protecting its most venerable areas. Add strength, agility, endurance, and sharp horns and there is no doubt that the Impala possesses superhero superpowers.
But for all of their abilities, Impala’s have a weakness — their own version of kryptonite. Impalas will never begin a flying jump until they have identified a safe landing spot. Without this assurance, the superhero-ness never happens.
Zookeepers know this. They use it to their advantage. They can contain an entire Impala herd without a single fence. It only takes a carefully designed moat blocking their view to a safe landing. Most Impalas could easily jump these barriers. But they don’t, because without the certainty of a safe landing, the jump never happens.
Innovators can sometimes be like Impalas in a zoo, trapped within the barriers of the organization’s beliefs, norms, and processes. They may possess all of the superpowers needed to make innovation greatness happen, but without the assurance of a safe landing — the jump never happens.
There was a time when I was an Impala of sorts – a person that jumped freely within the safe confines of the organization’s norms. I came by this tendency honestly. My father, a conservative banker his entire career, taught me the importance of planning, preparation, and measuring risk. My career, spent mostly in the utility industry, rewarded me for working inside the fences.
Yet it was in that very environment I learned my first lesson in what it takes to make an uncertain jump.
I was given the opportunity to lead a transformational project for my company. My assignment was to build a new corporate office that supported the “Healthy, High Performing” culture the CEO was working to create. My challenge was to innovate a new way for the company to engage and work together. My materials were the walls, windows, floors, furniture, and fixtures of a corporate workplace.
I would love to tell you that I had years of workplace design and construction experience before I started this. Trouble is, I can’t. My design experience was limited to picking the color palette for my son’s bedroom. I picked taupe with white trim.
I could have easily built the tried and true perimeter office, sea-of-cubes, taupe with white trim office space. But building that would be to jump with a safe landing guaranteed.
What we build was a highly collaborative, versatile, and visually inspiring workplace that is considered a showcase for office design in the Charlotte, NC market.
To do that, I had to jump; at full speed; as high as I could; with no idea how (or if) I would land. What helped me the most (and the lesson for leaders everywhere) was the support of my Executive Sponsor.
Turns out, the Zookeeper’s role was as essential to the innovation process as mine.
My Sponsor made it safe for me to experiment; he let me fail (and helped me back up); he offered a ton of feedback; and he gave me the confidence to make the bold move.
Did it take personal courage for me to jump? Yes.
What helped me do that? A supportive and engaged leader.
The innovation process does not always begin when someone decides to jump.
It begins when a leader makes it safe for an innovator to consider it.