We are told to persist … by coaches (Winners never quit and quitters never win.  Vince Lombardi)athletes (“If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”  Michael Jordan); social leaders (“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  Nelson Mandela); and political heroes (“…never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”  Winston Churchill). 

But I have come to realize the battle metaphor is inappropriate, indeed detrimental, when applied to innovation.  

Finding the love you deserve 

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I’ve started to look at it a different way – by seeing innovation as a quest to find love, rather than a fight to win. Viewing it this way can transform you effectively as someone who impacts the world and makes the journey more enjoyable.   

In battle, you set a target and jump over the barriers that stand in the way of your reaching it. In romance, you look for love in the eyes of others as you search for your ideal mate. If you are not feeling “chemistry,” you move on.  

Successful innovation is much more like love. You look into the eyes of your customers, you sense if they’re a match, and if not, you move on. You don’t see moving on as a sign of weakness or giving up. You see it as a liberating move toward finding the love you deserve.   

I found the perfect woman. Twenty-three years of marriage, three kids, ten moves across six cities and two continents have only reinforced for me that we are the perfect match. Finding this match, however, required quite a bit of dating (which I didn’t mind) and break-ups (some of which I didn’t mind).  

And yet, in business, so many of us, myself included, approach innovating and growing a business as battle. We become stalkers of a customer, product, or need that just isn’t a good fit for us.  

Taking the hint 

I was a market stalker for a decade. It felt like pushing a rock up a hill. I just knew that a particular course I had developed was perfect for the market I had chosen – learning and development (L&D) heads of large enterprises – and I was not going to give up until I proved it!

Then, two years ago, after almost a decade of courting, I finally got the hint. L&D leaders said they were interested, and some bought it, and a few even loved it. But, for the most part, their feedback was far more “let’s be friends” than “let’s get married.” 

Once we accepted that we were living that famous Johnny Lee lyric, “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,” we picked up our flowers and chocolates and moved on. We reconfigured our team, reworked our branding, and started exploring new customers to serve.  

The results were magical. Back in the game, so to speak, we started seeing glances of love with customers we had mostly ignored: 1) meeting planners interested in my public keynote speaking and 2) a peer group of chief strategy officers we had started organizing.  

Sometimes it just “clicks” 

We decided to start dating more seriously and felt the chemistry. That decision transformed our trajectory. We’ve become the popular kid at school. We are no longer asking clients out on dates – they are calling on us! For example, this afternoon we got a web inquiry from the head of strategy of a multi-billion-dollar insurance company asking if they might apply to our network. We are getting multiple such requests per week. This week we got four requests for (virtual) speeches and I delivered four more. We are getting about one request per day. 

Moving on when you are not feeling the love makes sense. Even with a good innovation program, you can expect an innovation effort to have an 85% failure rate. If you insist on clinging to the first one, you are, statistically speaking, setting yourself up for failure. You will either become a stalker (waste years doggedly pursuing a bad idea to the exclusion of better opportunities around you) or marry the wrong person (launch an innovation that will never give you the life, wealth, impact you desire).  

Last week, after three months of pushing a new innovation idea, we decided to simply stop. In the past, when I viewed innovation as battle, I would have felt embarrassed, like a failure. But today, I feel a sense of excitement at letting go and moving on to something even better.  

Write your own love story 

What stops you from moving on when your innovation is not showing you love, and how can you fix it? Take three steps: 

  1. Create more options: Successful innovators, understanding they can expect no more than a 15% success rate, have a portfolio of great ideas in their back pocket. This makes it painless, thrilling even, to move beyond your bad idea to the next, better one.  
  2. Value the learning: You didn’t fail, you learned. Think of your innovation effort as a course you signed up for, invested in, and now enjoy new skills from that will last a lifetime.  
  3. Be scientific: Sure, building an innovation is an art, but it is also a science. You create a hypothesis (customers will love this!), test the hypothesis, try to sell it, and draw your conclusions (they said they’d buy it but no one is pulling out their wallet). When your hypothesis proves flawed, come up with a different hypothesis, a new customer, new need, new product, etc.