I recently stumbled across this observation on innovation from Ger Perdisatt of Microsoft:
“Often, companies talk a good game about innovation, but when these aspirations bump up against the realpolitik of running corporate organizations, there is typically only one winner: the status quo.”
The pressure of the status quo is strong. Champions of innovation have to navigate a complex organizational maze to bring ideas to life. How we run that gauntlet makes a difference in the condition of the ideas at the end of the process.
One challenge in creating a culture of innovation is that the mindset needed at the earliest stages is different than the mindset required later. Idea Sandbox founder Paul Williams once shared a story that always stuck with me — that Walt Disney defined three distinct stages when coming up with and refining ideas: The Dreamer, The Realist, and The Spoiler.
As ideas moved through the process, Walt Disney would shift the rules of how to think about the ideas. When in The Dreamer stage, he suspended judgement. When in The Realist stage, he focused on execution. When in The Spoiler stage, he thoroughly vetted them.
As Paul Williams wrote:
“By compartmentalizing the stages, Walt didn’t let reality get in the way of the dream step. The realist was allowed to work without the harsh filter of a spoiler. And, the spoiler spends time examining a well-thought idea… something with a bit more structure.
“When we brainstorm alone and in groups – too often – we tend to fill the room with a dreamer or two, a few realists, and a bunch of spoilers. In these conditions, dream ideas don’t stand a chance.”
Walt even went so far as to have different physical rooms for each stage, using spaces specifically for each mindset required in bringing the idea to life.
In a culture of innovation, we need all of the players — the Dreamers, the Realists, and the Spoilers. The trick is knowing how best to use each.
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: