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Twelve paradoxes of innovation

In my leadership development programmes, I often cite the Eleven Paradoxes of Leadership that used to hang on the office wall of every manager at Lego. Their simplicity masks their profundity. And, as so often is the case, paradox – or perhaps better put, creative tensions – can provide powerful insights. To put it another way, one might suggest that the science of leadership allows recognition of the competing elements of the paradox, whereas the art of leadership requires us to inhabit the paradox.

Driven by my attraction to paradox as a vehicle for exploration and deep learning, I was delighted to read in the February 27th, 2023, edition of Forbes, John Bremen writing on the Twelve Paradoxes of Innovation. As Chief Strategy, Innovation & Acceleration Officer for WTW, John is well-placed to opine on such matters.

As with the Lego paradoxes, these apparent truisms are worthy of deep reflection with a view to generate insight, and more importantly, inform intentional responses.

Bremen summarises the paradoxes thus:

1. Innovative organisations have strong innovation machines but recognise that some of the best ideas come from outside the machine.

2. Big, disruptive ideas are alluring, but small, incremental ideas often pay the bills.

3. Small, incremental ideas often pay the bills, but big, disruptive ideas may be necessary to secure an organisation’s place in the long-term.

4. Siloes can be anathema to innovative thinking but are often necessary for depth and execution.

5. Process creates discipline, but also can suffocate good Ideas.

6. Psychological safety breeds better cultivation of ideas, but innovation is measured by results.

7. Communication around innovation is key internally, but confidentiality is necessary to keep ideas from external competitors.

8. Failing fast and learning fast reduce wasted time, energy, and money, but artifacts allow for future reconstitution and re-use.

9. Timing of ideas is essential, but an idea that fails one year can succeed in another under different circumstances or with the right tweaks.

10. Cannibalising existing business represents a threat to orthodoxy, but also prevents competitors from doing so.

11. Successful innovation teams include deep content expertise and experience, but also generalists and process experts who look through a different lens and ask new questions.

12. Innovators often feel like imposters, but don’t realise that feeling is part of a growth mindset.

Much could be written on each paradox and, when time permits, I will return to each in turn. For now, I simply want to share all twelve for reflection. As I prepare to take part in a large pan-African Ministerial Summit on Innovation next month, I find myself referring to each and wondering if they help move us beyond the science and towards the art of innovation.

Bremen reminds us of the famous quote from Thomas Edison who wisely noted that “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” The power of the reframe! Itself an artefact of the innovation mindset.

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