If You Want Innovation and Change, You’ll Need Wave Makers

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May 16, 2014

Editor’s note: This is excerpted from the new book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life.

By Patti Johnson

As human beings, we are born with an interest in using our imagination and making the world better.

Think back to kindergarten, when you were full of ideas, suggestions, and questions. Many of you remember your own questions, or have a child who regularly asks, “Why?”

Why can’t trains fly? What if we had birthday cakes for dogs? Why not? That creative mind-set gradually fades as we grow up, learn what’s realistic, and apply the world’s logic. And parental exhaustion has to be a factor, too.

Many of us also slowly lose that zest for the unseen possibilities in our quest to show that we know the answer. Growing up and being part of bigger groups that we want to fit into also changes how we think. The desire for acceptance can overtake us.

Where the best ideas often come from

By design, organizations in total will always be less innovative than many of the individuals who work there. Many businesses have grown because of scalable, efficient, and repeatable processes.

As stated on, in a January 2013 article:

The disciplines of management were invented, more than a hundred years ago, to drive variety out of organizations. The goal was to excise the irregularities, in an effort to ensure conformance to work rules, quality standards, timetables, and budgets.”

Yet, the best ideas often come out of the irregularities, the new twist, or an idea that may not fit. This is where innovation begins, if we can keep the goal of efficiency in its proper place.

Companies like Cisco have taken steps to embed innovative thinking and practices throughout their business. They have created a framework for innovation by offering training, starting innovation summits across the organization, organizing innovation leadership conferences, and recognizing those who innovate. Kate O’Keeffe, leader of the Services Innovation Excellence Center at Cisco, recently said, “Our model asserts that innovation cannot be the ‘domain of the few’ but must be the ‘responsibility of the many.’ ”

Everyone has a responsibility to innovate, create, and contribute. It is not the responsibility of top leadership or the executive team alone. It’s not a feel-good move for engagement, either — though it’s that too. Instead, innovation is an essential ingredient of realizing goals and growing a vital business.

Benefits of Wave Makers

Of course, not every situation calls for making waves. In organizations, repeatable processes and efficiency are essential to many parts of the business. And, as we have referenced throughout Make Waves, an idea is not a wave. It has to have purpose and real impact to the business, organization, community, or world.

While organizations depend upon stability and repeatability to complete key processes effectively, they also need Wave Makers to create positive surges that move the group forward. Wave Makers are the ones who look for the better way, explore possibilities, see the new idea, and avoid the complacency of familiarity.

Wave Makers serve as human catalysts for change and growth. You need them.

Wave Makers bring value because they:

  • Spark innovation. As we discussed above, innovation comes from individuals with new and relevant ideas that will work. Every organization I know is looking for innovation, just in different ways and on different topics. Leaders can give inspiring presentations on the need to innovate and the importance for the organization’s success.

The hard part is connecting that philosophy to everyone who works there, not just the head of strategy or the chief innovation officer. Everyone has a role to play in innovation, and it takes individuals willing to step out, step up, and share their ideas.

Wave Maker Lois Melbourne, co-creator and former CEO of Aquire, shared the connection between risk and innovation and creating a culture that encourages waves: “I think it’s respect. You’ve got to respect people for taking the risk. You have to give them the ability to fail and not take a hit for their failures. Look at what worked and what didn’t and learn from both. If an organization respects outside thought then anyone can say, ‘Let’s try this.’ Encourage ‘skunk works,’ risk taking, and exploration. Fear is anti-innovation.”

  • Drive up performance. It is amazing what two or three Wave Makers can do to raise the performance in a group or team. Most organizations have established performance measures to quantify success. If you are an entrepreneur, these measures are very real. They represent your paycheck as well as whether you can invest in that new employee. Performance is improved when everyone involved asks, “What can I do?” “Why? Is there a better way?” or “What if?”

A few years ago, I saw the impact of a recent college graduate on a client team that had been doing their work the same way for years. She didn’t judge or criticize, but she did start a change in that team without a big campaign to do so. She started using technology to streamline and improve access to meaningful data, made suggestions on work processes once she had a full understanding of the goals, and developed new techniques for packaging information.

Her actions started to change the way the team worked, but she also raised the bar for the entire team’s performance. And, she was smart in the way she did it. She kept her focus on the work, not judgment of those who did it.

  • Accelerate development. Hands down, one of the best ways to accelerate your personal and professional development is working on a wave. Waves stretch us because we are taking on a challenge that hasn’t been done before.

There is no prescribed road map that tells you where to go. The experiences that I call on again and again for insights and learnings are the ones that were tied to some element of a change. Research tells us that we develop the most when in a stretch assignment or out of our comfort zone. Big changes create those opportunities.

Wave Maker Jonathan Morris, chapter president in the Young Presidents’ Organization, said that his wave changed him. He built relationships around the world, gained insights on how to collaborate and work together, and learned that traditional hierarchies can get in the way. He said that his wave made him a much better leader.

As we have discussed, waves extend beyond the boundaries of one job or role. They are aligned with bigger values that grow and build because of collaboration and interest in the change.

Waves have patterns and flow and an evolving plan. And leaders advocate for growing the skills and capabilities of those in their organizations. It’s important for you and the organization.

One of my clients has created a career plan that includes what they call “critical experiences.” These are defined as experiences that accelerate an employee’s development, increase capabilities, and, in turn, help the business. Changes can provide a critical experience across almost any type of work.

Waves are ideal for career and capability acceleration.

  • Shake up the status quo. If you or your leaders feel that the organization has gotten too stale or needs an influx of new ideas, then a Wave Maker can help. Is the status quo ready to be shaken? Entrepreneurs, by definition, shake up the status quo by redefining the market through a new and better product or service. Intrapreneurs can too.

Entire markets have been disrupted by a wave that eventually became a tsunami. Take the Blockbuster story. In 2011, Dish Network bought Blockbuster’s assets out of bankruptcy court for around $230 million. This is the same company that Viacom had previously paid $8.4 billion for and spun off into its own IPO.

The fall was stunning in the market at the time. But if you had watched Blockbuster closely over the previous five to seven years, signs of its downfall were there among the omens of changes to come.

There is no question that Blockbuster could have made countless decisions over a six-year period that may have turned the tide, but it didn’t. I am sure that there were individuals inside Blockbuster who saw this coming. But, for whatever reason, their voices weren’t heard or the status quo overtook them.

The need to think about the next big thing

Leaders must be intentional up front. If they want more innovation, having the right people involved is essential.

Finding Wave Makers is a core strategy to disrupt current thinking and conventional wisdom. And look at the opportunity that Reed Hastings created by experimenting with new subscription models at Netflix. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t then.

Any new change requires debate and discussion. Yet, the status quo is the only option that is usually not debated. It’s the choice that becomes the “best” option without a decision ever being made.

Every group needs individuals thinking about the next big thing, about how to make work better and improve our quality of life. You need people who aren’t invested in the status quo.

Excerpted with permission from Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life by Patti Johnson. Bibliomotion, copyright 2014.

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