To Innovate, You Have to Believe

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“There are no atheists in fox holes,” the old saw goes. It’s an assertion that no doubt offends atheists, who I assume hold their beliefs with the same conviction as anyone else. I have a similar observation to make about innovation (one that I don’t think will offend anyone): There are no unbelievers among innovators.

Innovation isn’t just about being clever or imaginative, or inventive or even being knowledgeable about innovation tools and processes and adopting best practices. It requires believing, and on many different levels.

It requires believing that a desired outcome is achievable and therefore worth pursuing.

It requires believing in our own abilities and perhaps the abilities of our team to achieve that outcome.

It requires maintaining those beliefs despite the critics and naysayers and setbacks.

And it requires another kind of believing.

We understand quite a bit about what cognitive and behavioral tasks are required for innovation.  We understand that to generate innovative ideas, we need to be willing to let go of what we may already know and believe. We understand that we must have the courage to attempt things that may not work, to experiment and explore and take risks. We understanding that we need to make careful skeptical observations, and find ways to overcome our own mental inertia in order to consider fresh ways of interpreting what we observe and experience.

But just understanding all that isn’t enough; we have to actively engage those attitudes and practices. Awareness isn’t enough; we need to personally adopt the right mindset.

This is not automatic. There are those who know exactly what innovation requires and choose not to go there. They’re familiar with what’s needed but lack the courage, or curiosity or mental flexibility to do it. There are those who pay lip service to the importance of change yet cling to the known and the familiar. Without an emotional investment in an innovative outcome, and a genuine commitment, any real progress is unlikely if not impossible.

Henry Ford once observed that, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” He understood that such beliefs are frequently self-fulfilling. But the issue is bigger than personal motivation, because all of the benefits of an innovator mindset accrue only to those who actively adopt it, not to those who just understand it.

You have to believe.

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