My wife told me a story she swears is true about a woman who, before putting a ham in the oven, would always cut off both ends. She explained that this was the method her mother and her grandmother before her had used, and she was merely following their example.
This woman went on for some time preparing her hams in this way, despite protestations from other family members that she was wasting good meat. “If it was good enough for Mama and Grandma, it’s good enough for me,” was her argument.
Imagine the woman’s surprise, then, when one day her mother came to her house for a family meal, noticed her slicing the ends off the ham, and objected. “Why are you doing that?” she asked her daughter. “Because that’s how you taught me!” the woman rejoined. “Yes,” the mother said, “but Grandma and I only did it because those old gas ovens were narrower and roasting pans shorter back in the day. I stopped cutting off the ends years ago.”
Fixin’ what ain’t broke
It’s not only in the family kitchen that it’s dangerous to keep doing the same things in the same way year after year just because “it’s always been done that way.” In business, too, you risk losing a lot of value if you fail to re-examine your processes and practices on a regular basis, and “fix what ain’t broke.” (Even things that worked in the past may have broken while you weren’t looking!)
As a druggist quaintly put it 100 years ago in the now-defunct publication Southern Pharmaceutical Journal, “There is no worse condition for a merchant than to get into the habit of doing things a certain way just because he has always done them that way. This is getting into a rut and the only difference between a rut and a grave is just a few feet in depth.”
In essence, what this druggist was talking about is innovation, not just once in the life of an organization, but constantly and purposefully.
What makes an innovator
If you’re concerned about the level of innovation in your work, and would like to shake things up, you might want to consider some of the personal traits that innovators consistently display, and emulate them as appropriate. According to blogger Thai Nguyen at The Utopian Life, innovators:
- Strive to see both, or multiple, sides. Great innovators don’t rule things out in a Manichean, either/or way. They try to see problems and challenges, rather, as “both/and,” holding all potentialities in mind for as long as possible.
- Pursue more than one project at a time. Not every new idea works out. Indeed, most fail. The person who works on multiple fronts is more likely to come up with an idea that can be implemented than someone who doggedly chases a single dream.
- Take copious notes. Nguyen points out that Thomas Edison, at his death, left behind 3,500 notebooks into which he’d scribbled idea after idea. You can’t remember every notion you ever had, but you can record them and look them over to cull out the best ones for further work.
- Look for patterns. Some people see patterns almost effortlessly, but you can train yourself to do it, too. Practice looking for commonalities and similarities between phenomena or events you’ve observed in the past, and the current challenge or problem. Spotting these relationships creates opportunities for innovation.
- Work smart, not hard. Not that there’s anything wrong with hard work, but innovators look not only for the best product or service, but also for the best process — i.e., the one that takes the least arduous path.
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