Messing With Success

Contrary to “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” promoting innovation requires continual tinkering with a successful team’s roster.

Earlier this month two leadership groups passed through various stations of a ropes course during a day of teambuilding activities. The result at one station was particularly intriguing despite a fairly basic challenge: Cross a twelve-foot gap using a rope swing. The trick was to grab the rope that dangled in the middle… just out of reach.

The first team of the day surveyed the situation and promptly threw their jackets at the rope. The rope first swayed away, then right back into their arms. The team was across in moments.

Later in the day, the second team tackled the same station. According to the instructor, they took longer than almost any other team in the history of the course. The team was determined to build a human bridge out to grab the rope, but they failed repeatedly.

Blinded By Success

The cause for this abysmal lack of problem-solving ingenuity was quickly apparent at the debrief… it was their stellar success at the previous station. That activity entailed getting the entire team over a horizontal rope 4 feet off the ground without touching the rope. They made record time by building a human bridge over the hurdle.

With that success fresh in their minds, they attacked the swinging rope with the same “proven” strategy, blinded to the solution obvious to the first team.

This event illustrates a critical need for fueling innovation: outside, fresh perspectives.

We tend to protect the composition of successful teams. We don’t want to tamper with their magical combination of individual creativity and synergistic group dynamics. But success produces two handicaps:

  1. Overconfidence: As Bill Gates observed, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
  2. Tunnel Vision: Our instincts focus on what made us successful in the past, narrowing our perspective and suppressing our innovative drive.

Mixing It Up

Innovation studies repeatedly show that, to produce new ideas, we have to continually tinker with successful groups.

This doesn’t require complete upheaval, but at the very least, rotate new blood into every new initiative. These free agents challenge successful teams to push past prior ideas, take a fresh look at each new challenge, and produce superior solutions.

Without a little turbulence, our best teams may quickly settle on prior approaches and miss the best solutions.

© Dave Wittenberg