Stepping on the Gas: Fighting the Urge to Back Away From Business Risks

Posted by Dwayne Spradlin on Nov 8, 2011 1:53:15 PM

Dwayne Spradlin NASCAR

By Dwayne Spradlin, CEO, InnoCentive

I recently attended NASCAR Racing School as a birthday present from my family. And it was an incredible experience. In the midst of the searing Texas heat, I was given several hours of instruction on both the car and the rules of the road. Somehow, Texas Motor Speedway looks less daunting on television than when you’re sitting in an actual racing car. Did I call it a car? My mistake. It is a rocket engine with a steering wheel. And the banked areas of the track have a much more severe incline than you could imagine. I must say that even though I pride myself on being even keeled, my heart was pounding.

The highlight of the school is taking several laps around the track at whatever top speed you feel comfortable with. In reality, you follow an experienced driver, so when you are ready to go faster, you signal to the car in front of you by coming within a few yards of their car, which is the sign to accelerate – both terrifying and invigorating at 140 MPH (not actually sure why a headset isn’t a better idea).

I grew up learning to drive near Chicago and I assure you, I-94 is not sufficient coursework for being a NASCAR driver. Although it felt like an eternity, I was driving on the roadway for less than 30 minutes. My top speed? Just under 150 miles per hour, not even close to the speeds professionals must manage every day. This was the adrenaline rush of a lifetime!

Adrenaline or not, stepping on the gas was not a natural act. Every fiber of your being senses danger because, in your head, you know that man should not be going this fast. There was an ever present fear that something bad was right around the next bend. Self-preservation and fear of the unknown are hard to overcome because they are instinct. Professional drivers must have a certain skill set, including a level of fearlessness.

The same is true of change agents within organizations. They know that the organization conforms to a certain set of rules. The safety margins are built in and the performance of the vehicle is well understood. Standard operation procedures, culture and management systems ensure that; employees follow their “experienced drivers” to reach a desired destination at their comfortable speed. To go outside that comfort zone is to take an organization into new territory, to push the comfort level. Suggesting an organization can deliver higher performance levels is suggesting that current systems are inadequate. Pulling ahead puts you right in the sights of all the other cars on the track, signaling to all the spectators that those other cars are falling behind. And those other cars are not going to exit the track. They are going to fight to keep things just as they were. Although challenging the status quo within an organization may not feel life threatening, it may feel career threatening.

Open innovation change agents in corporations today know exactly how this feels. Quite honestly, the stories are all the same. Yield arguments are met with risk arguments (fear of the unknown). Money requests for new innovation programs fail to materialize because returns cannot be guaranteed (fear the programs may actually work). Addressing a “not invented here” culture, compensation systems and closed attitudes are met with apathy and passive aggression (fear we may lose control of management systems we understand today). The list goes on and on.

My advice to organizations is this: step on the gas. Organizations need the next class of leadership to be fearless. There is always risk on the track, but the spoils go to the winners, the drivers that push the limits. Let the fearless break some of the rules and accelerate into the next turn. Let them nudge the cars in front of them and accept a few setbacks along the way. Better, faster and cheaper innovation—which is often achieved through the adoption of open innovation—will make or break your organization in the future.

And for the change agents? Prove yourself. Take some risks. Be prepared to execute and deliver. Over time, if current leadership is not lined up behind you, there are many other organizations looking for that extra nudge in the form of an effective guide to open innovation to help push them into the winners circle. They recognize that winning will require perseverance, dedication, precision and fearlessness. This is a rare combination indeed, but a combination that is vital for organizations intent on adapting to innovation realities in the new millennium.

Topics: Innovation Insights

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