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The irony of innovation: Don’t get stuck in the messy middle


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- Belle DeMont

I was 16 when I got my first body piercing, a little hoop in my belly button. Back then, this was a fairly rebellious thing to do. Britney Spears had her belly button pierced, but none of my other friends did and there certainly wasn’t a dozen tattoo and piercing shops in town to choose from.

I remember feeling very pleased with myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the rush of non-conformity and going first.

A few years later, body piercings reached the middle of the bell curve and sparkly belly buttons were everywhere. So obviously, I took mine out.

It’s a small and inconsequential thing to abandon a body piercing when it becomes boring, but what happens when a big idea or plan is no longer exciting, do you ditch it too?

Of course, the most responsible answer is heck no. But when your vision for reinventing an industry, building a thriving business, or transforming a neighbourhood or narrative gets boring — and it will — the answer feels more like hell yes.

“Run!” our creative minds tell us. “If you get stuck in the middle you might never get out,” our rebellious spirits cry.

The truth is innovators don’t like the messy middle. Some might even say we’re born with an aversion to it.

When I asked Jesse Rodgers, CEO at Volta, to offer some perspective on the state of innovation in Atlantic Canada right now, the relevance of this truth bubbled to the top. During an innovator’s roundtable hosted by Volta a few weeks ago, mention of it had everyone nodding in agreement.

Rodgers explains: “Everyone in the room knew the feeling, they’d been there. In corporate speak, they refer to it as a chasm. In everyone’s practical speak, messy middle describes it perfectly well.”

Here’s what it’s all about:

The bigger your vision, the longer the road and the greater the distance between where you are and where you want to be. The middle of that journey can be where the most uninspiring work happens; it’s also where the most critical and challenging work happens. It requires grit and persistence, can be messy and boring, and it demands a lot more than the creating, visioning and designing an innovator is best at.

The irony is that if you don’t do the work you don’t like, your idea wont become an innovation at all.

“Innovators have to push through institutional malaise in order to get to long-term success,” says Rodgers. “If you don’t learn from that and you just skip over it, you’re missing a big part of what innovation is all about. Innovators have to persevere. There will self-doubt and all kinds of resistance to push through, but you have to be persistent and resilient.”

That experience of hitting a wall is not limited to trying to create change within organizations and long-standing institutions either. Rodgers says founders have the same experience when they bring their product to market.

As for where innovation in Atlantic Canada is right now? Rodgers suspects that a lot of organizations and ecosystems, both large and small, are working through this phase.

So what? How do we turn awareness of the messy middle into meaningful action?

For starters, remind yourself that although the idea may be yours, the implementation absolutely need to be shared. Rodgers offers this:

“Innovative people are seeing a colour spectrum that other people don’t see and they make the mistake of thinking that everybody sees it, especially when they spend a lot of time with people who do. People who think and see things differently need to understand that part of doing the thing is talking about it and bringing other people along. You simply have to find a way to invite other people to participate.”

When your brain moves faster than your mouth this isn’t always easy. It requires slowing down, communicating as precisely and plainly as possible, and stepping outside of your own perspective as much as you can.

And next time you’re wondering why everyone on your team or at your table isn’t as fired up as you are — it may be because they literally can’t see what you’re looking at.

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