Lessons From Innovation Catalysts: Can They Help Us Thrive in Uncertain Times?

Jeanne M. Liedtka and Randy Salzman

In The Catalyst: How You Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader, Jeanne and her co-authors point out that even in large, established organizations, entrepreneurial skills and mindsets are helpful and, perhaps, critical for surviving in uncertain times.

When the book was published in the midst of the Great Recession, we struggled with turbulence that was largely financial. Today, it is also political, and uncertainty runs even deeper. Guidelines and norms of behavior are seemingly changing daily, decades-old relationships are being disrupted and even the basic themes of what the United States stands for are in debate.

The lessons we learned from the growth management behavior we studied almost 10 years ago — exhibited by growth leaders who succeeded in expanding their businesses despite challenging economic realities — perhaps have relevance today in this uncertain period.

We called our organic growth leaders “Catalysts” because they entered inert environments and catalyzed a reaction that produced something of value. These leaders — all of them in mature, command-and-control organizations — managed to beat the economic odds by exhibiting behaviors usually associated with entrepreneurs. Similar to those famous computer idealists of a few years prior, with limited money or backing, our Catalysts skillfully navigated a world of uncertainty, a world of limited resources and little predictability.

To consider our findings relative to today’s challenges, we identified five prime lessons from the 50 growth leaders we interviewed on how they dug through organizational bureaucracies, confronted conflicting facts and opinions, and handled uncertain economics.

For Leadership, Look In, Not Up

Our Catalysts didn’t “look up” for leadership, resources or support; they “looked in” to their own skills, abilities and perseverance. They had a can-do belief in their power to shape the environment and a bias toward action aimed at learning by doing. As we put it then, they leaned into uncertainty, rather than withdrawing from it, seemingly unafraid of the chaos.

Having constantly sought new experiences throughout their lives, they had developed a repertoire of many different capabilities, which allowed them to see things that other managers couldn’t, to identify possibilities others missed. Building their teams, they expanded that repertoire so there were ever larger pools of diverse backgrounds to draw on for new perspectives, ideas and networks, to assess ever-changing realities.

Partner With Co-Creators to Break Through Bureaucracy

Our Catalysts recognized that organizational demand for prediction and analysis could stifle innovation and figured out how to bypass establishment resistance. Because large organizations typically seek big payoff projects based on primarily quantitative analysis, they tend to study ideas internally, using historical data, to find “proof” of an idea’s value before acting. In the meantime, opportunity can pass them by.

To develop new ideas for growth, our Catalysts jumped in with whatever resources they could muster and worked to win early, small “yeses” from potential partners and customers.

Reframe the Question

Our Catalysts usually found that reframing whatever question was on the table and looking for a creative recombination of ideas already floating around could hold the key to successful innovation and growth. Like the axiom “there are no new ideas, only a reapplication of old ideas,” Catalysts and their teams looked through different lenses at the same available facts and the same data to arrive at unique interpretations.

Surprisingly, our Catalysts discovered that in remixing their thinking, they almost always deepened their relationships with customers, as well, because in order to advance whatever new idea, they needed feedback from these stakeholders. A one-way discussion that had been, “Buy this,” became two-way, “Can you help me with this?”

Seeking Big Results? Start With Small Bets

Our Catalysts loved to “place small bets fast,” to quote one of them, because they saw a new business opportunity as a hypothesis to test. They were more interested in learning quickly through what we call “learning launches” — small marketplace tests — to see if the assumed audience might be out there, versus trying to ramp up sales volume as quickly as possible. Without breaking the bank, their fast action minimized risk and generated data for future conversations with their more analytical colleagues who usually controlled organizational purse strings. Equally important, once a Catalyst and team made that small bet, they also were ready to “call their baby ugly” and admit that what they thought was a good idea was missing some key element.

One crucial point: The Catalysts didn’t seek business possibilities that would stay small, they just wanted to start small.

Be a Pragmatic Idealist

Our Catalysts also displayed a quality that we called “pragmatic idealism.” Their genuine idealism and faith in their abilities to create a better tomorrow for their customers was accompanied by a deep dose of cold pragmatism that sought truth through understanding realities. In fact, the most impressive creativity frequently came not in the new ideas the Catalysts generated, but in the way they overcame constraints (that others accepted as too powerful) to change present reality into a better world for the future.

Pragmatic idealism also meant that hard staffing choices about who was on an innovation team were needed. Decisions were based primarily on assembling a truly diverse set of skills and perspectives, balanced by the outcomes any team member was known to produce. Rather than “group think,” the Catalysts demanded people who questioned but also delivered, who were passionate but accountable. As they searched for whether their small bets had bigger possibilities, they did not tolerate team members unable to perform under short time frames and small budgets. Getting it wrong wasn’t nearly as destructive to innovation, they told us, as failing to act — or not learning and iterating quickly. The Catalysts, as members of large organizations, often operated under the corporate radar to produce organic growth despite the uncertainty that surrounded them.

We Can Find the Answers to Manage Uncertainty in Ourselves

It is difficult to believe that today’s political and economic uncertainty will not spread to the commercial world. In fact, we can already see it happening, particularly in trade and technology.

What might the Catalysts teach us about survival — prosperity, even — in turbulent times? Their experiences suggest that instead of waiting for someone to provide what we seek, we start with the resources we’ve got and move into action with small strategic bets that help us navigate uncertainties, while avoiding putting all our eggs in one basket. They teach us to ask new questions, be willing to resuscitate and recombine existing ideas into novel thinking that pursues better value for those we serve, and that reaches out to partners to pool resources and learn from their perspectives.

Are we Catalysts in this moment of uncertainty?

 Jeanne M. Liedtka and Randy Salzman are authors of the upcoming book Design Thinking for the Greater Good (Columbia Business Press), a study of design-led innovation projects in government and social sectors.

About the Faculty

Jeanne M. Liedtka

Liedtka is an expert on the hot topic of design thinking and how it can be used to fuel innovation and organic growth.

Liedtka’s most recent books are The Catalyst: How You Can Lead Extraordinary Growth (named one of Businessweek’s best innovation and design books of 2009), Designing for Growth: A Design... Learn More

Education

Course

Design Thinking for Innovative Business Problem Solving

Solve complex business challenges and promote industry leadership with a systematic approach to creativity.
19 Jun 2017
23 Jun 2017
Design Thinking for Innovative Business Problem Solving