Stop Asking Permission to Innovate
Strategy and Innovation Expert, author of four business strategy booksInnovation Creativity & Innovation Employee Engagement
There’s an old saying that goes “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” That’s the bold conviction held by internal innovators – people who innovate within their organization – and a big reason why they’re so successful.
A myth persists that most innovation is driven by entrepreneurs. You know the trope – young, creative thinkers working out of their parents’ garage. But in my new book, Driving Innovation from Within, I dispel this myth and show that employees are actually the biggest and most successful innovators.
Based on that, we might assume those employees work in R&D or an incubation lab. At the very least, surely they work in organizations that are incredibly supportive of innovative behavior and are guided by leaders who have asked them to innovate.
However, this is often not the case. But this doesn’t deter internal innovators, because their natural mindset is to innovate without asking permission, and without waiting around to be asked.
One giant leap for Chuck House
A great example of an internal innovator “asking forgiveness” happened at Hewlett-Packard in the 1960s. Engineer Chuck House was working on a project to build a large-screen, high-frequency display monitor. When the company’s founder David Packard found out about the project, he wasn’t impressed, and told Chuck to kill the project.
But Chuck ignored David’s request and pushed forward on his innovation, encouraged by early buzz among potential customers and confident of the monitor’s applications – presenting computer data, classroom displays, medical monitoring and more.
Within a year, Chuck’s monitor was in production, much to David’s chagrin. But the innovation proved quite successful, selling thousands of units and making the company millions of dollars. Chuck’s innovation also became the basis for the TV footage of the 1969 moon landing, which allowed millions of people worldwide to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon.
Had Chuck not taken his own “giant leap” – had he asked for permission rather than forgiveness – his incredible innovation never would have seen the light of day.
What’s luck got to do with it?
Chuck’s journey might lead you to ask – did he just get lucky? Sure, he worked hard, but couldn’t his innovation just as easily have failed? What makes Chuck and other internal innovators so successful?
A big piece of that is intention. Chuck saw an opportunity and was confident it would be fruitful, so he seized that opportunity and turned it into a success.
But it can’t really be that simple…can it? According to psychologist and author Richard Wiseman, it sure can. In a fascinating study, he split people up into two groups: those who considered themselves lucky, and those who considered themselves unlucky. When asked to report how many photos were in a newspaper, the unlucky people took several minutes to come up with their answer, while the lucky group took just seconds.
It turns out, the message “Stop counting – there are 43 photographs in this newspaper” appeared on the second page of the paper in big, bold type. The message was there for all to see, but only the lucky people saw it, while the unlucky people overlooked it.
According to Richard, it’s because “lucky people generate their own good fortune” by maximizing chance opportunities, listening to lucky hunches, expecting good fortune, and adopting a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
In other words, if you move through life with the intention of having good luck, you’ll have it. If you don’t, you will fail to see an opportunity even if it’s staring you in the face – like the message in the newspaper that only the “lucky” folks paid attention to.
Cooking up innovation
There are countless other stories of internal innovators who created their own luck, “asked forgiveness,” and achieved success.
Consider Kat Cole, who, while working as a waitress at Hooters, went into the kitchen and began making customers’ meals herself after the entire cooking staff walked out. Rather than waiting to hear what to do from corporate, she took it upon herself to keep things moving, thus cementing her spot as an internal innovator who doesn’t ask for permission.
She went on to become the executive vice president of Hooters, and is now COO of Focus Brands, a conglomerate that owns numerous restaurant brands including Carvel, Cinnabon, Moe's Southwest Grill, and Auntie Anne's.
Pillsbury makes the “dough”
Then there’s Lee Pillsbury, who was the assistant manager at a Marriott hotel when he came up with the idea of renting rooms for $24 a night to Shell, which was relocating its headquarters to just a few blocks away.
When the manager informed him that the actual prices for the rooms – $19 for a single, $21 for a double – were written on cards on every hotel room’s door, Lee spent the weekend changing the price on the cards rather than going back on his deal with Shell. He went on to become the executive vice president for Marriott International.
So if you truly want to make a difference in your organization, don’t sit around waiting for someone to ask you to innovate. Take heed from the Chucks, Kats, and Lees of the world, and create your own luck. Find an opportunity, seize it, and ask forgiveness later.
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