In brainstorming sessions, we often use a technique called "WW_D?" It's our variation on the popular saying, "What would Jesus do?" The exercise challenges participants to see an opportunity through the perspective of a big thinker—anyone from Henry Ford to Bill Gates—and then asks them to solve the issue at hand the way these heavyweights would. The exercise often leads to solid, unexpected ideas.
It is with this practice in mind that we pose the question: When it comes to innovation, what would the Boss, aka Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, do? (Author's note: Yes, one of us—we are not naming names, but his initials are RLV—spent way too much of his youth on the Jersey Shore.)
Why cite Bruce? At the age of 61, with album sales north of 120 million, he knows something about thriving in a constantly changing world. "I like to write about people whose souls are in danger, who are at risk," Springsteen once said, like those "broken heroes on a last-chance power drive" from his epic song, Born to Run. Like most of his music, this song takes us on the universal journey from despair to resilience; the lyrics demonstrate an empathetic understanding of our shared crisis and struggle. Yale Professor L.S. Godleski says that "the appeal, however, is in knowing that Springsteen won't leave us at the point of desperation, but instead will guide us through the steps of resilience by gently illustrating the psychological coping mechanisms of hopeful anticipation, social support, family, and the healing powers of love and intimacy."
That is what the best bosses do. They get us through failures. Failure can cause embarrassment, even job separation, or serve as an important part of the drive to innovation success. That's point No. 1: Leaders celebrate failure. Knowing what doesn't work leads us closer to discovering what does. We call this looking for the "bounce." Bruce would say, "Come on up for the rising" (from The Rising).
turn crisis into a rallying cry
Point two follows logically. The reason you are constantly innovating—accepting the failures that occur along the way—is that you want to shape your own future instead of reacting to it.
That does not mitigate risk or guarantee you will never face a crisis. Good innovation leaders understand how to empower risk and turn crisis into a rallying cry. Great innovation leaders steer clear, learning from the all-or-nothing crises of others. They know how to hedge their bets. (More about that shortly.)
It is the role of the chief executive officer or the chief innovation officer (CInO) to lead us to "the promised land" (The Promised Land), to get us successfully past the crises, the "badlands" (Badlands), that occur ever-more frequently and less predictably. It is no easy task. Today the typical life span of one of our 500 largest companies is under 40 years, less than half that of a human being.
That brings us to point No. 3.
When we talk to CEOs, we often hear such sentiments as this: "I need my organization to consistently get better at innovation because it is a key business driver that determines our success and survival. But we always seem to wait until there is a crisis before committing sufficient resources to innovation."
don't end up "wounded, not even dead"
CInO Bruce wouldn't let you "fade away" (Fade Away) or wait for a crisis. Nor should you. Survival, not to mention success, depends on an organization's ability to thrive amid the societal, economic, and technological shifts that alter business year after year. Yet many organizations do very little to equip themselves with the capacity to hope, learn, act, and fail forward. To put it differently, they do little to prepare their organization to consistently innovate. To "prove it all night" (Prove It All Night), they should first, have a dynamic innovation portfolio strategy; second, focus on innovation that is continuous or spontaneous, vs. episodic or sequential; and third, create a culture of innovation throughout the organization, rather than limit it to a single department.
Instead of doing this, CEOs tell us they typically wait until they find their company in a deep crisis before investing in the push for "the promised land." By then, "they wind up wounded, not even dead" (Jungleland).
Even if there is "darkness on the edge of town" today, when it comes to leading your company's growth efforts with innovation expertise, there is no reason for your organization to be a casualty when you could instead "walk in the sun" (Born to Run).
"Oh honey, tramps like us—baby, we were born to run."