Any new technology or know-how is only as good as the people who are using it and living with it. If innovation is the purposeful application of something new then by definition something, big or small, has to change. And every manager, entrepreneur or inventor knows very well that the biggest barriers to innovation are more often human than technical or physical.
Consider three levels of change – changing context, changing organizations and personal change. The accelerating pace of change in context, in practically every sphere of work and life, is an oft-repeated truism. In some areas the speed of change happens at a breakneck pace, in others it may be slower but it is still much faster than a few decades ago. Big global changes are spreading rapidly, digital transformation, new generations of road, sea, air and space transportation, from primary agricultural production to worlds of virtual reality, and an endless list of everything. No single person or entity has control of the changing context even if some of the institutional actors are more impactful than others.
In contrast to contextual change, in organizations change happens when leaders want it to happen and make it happen. As the context shifts, this change is often crucial for an organization’s survival. Each entity will have its own pace. Too fast is risky. Too slow is riskier still. A conservative company whose people and systems are not flexible will get rusty and, when change does take off it will be more painful. An agile company builds change and renewal into its way of life.
Then there is personal change. It’s never easy. Mindsets are hard to change, for all of us. Habits are strong, customs and traditions are sometimes sacred. Stubbornly sticking to the past is more comfortable than taking on the challenges of new things. The status quo can be comforting, after all it’s the devil you know. New things are by definition unknown. We all fear the unknown. We all fear failure. But some get more excited by exploration. Some are more willing to take risks. Some will more eagerly take personal responsibility for change to heart. The personal challenge of our times for each and every one of us is to learn to skillfully ride the waves of change.
Innovative leaders recognize that society and its institutions only change as much as its people will or won’t. They want to lead organizations that are more agile than their competitors. They want to make sure that people are a help not a hindrance to the organization’s progress. They hire more of those people who are open to change and train their people to adapt and, better still, generate change themselves.
The innovation/change journey is more like a turbulent voyage than a smooth sail. The vessel and the crew that are best prepared for the trip to the unknown, will have the best chances of making exciting discoveries. In a shifting fast-paced world, the skills of the explorer are more valuable than the wisdom of the sages.