Innovation Principle 18: Learn to orbit the hairball

If the process of bringing new things to life were a living, breathing organism, it would be a nasty beast!  It would be unpredictable.  It would consume as much as you dared to feed it.  Some days, it would really stink.  Yucko!  And it would have a tendency to chew up people and spit them out.  Most of all, though, it would hairy.  Really hairy — think dense forests of tangly, greasy, matted, hair, the likes of which make people run for shampoo, scissors, clippers, straight razors, and a blow dryer.

However, if you shave a hairball, there's nothing left.  You know, it's just a ball of hair, right?  But in that fuzziness is an unpredictable wellspring of creativity, which — if left to do what it will in in its own nonlinear way — is the source of the new and the wonderful.  Consequently, one must never give in to the temptation to shave the fuzzy hairball that is innovation.  As institutions and individuals, we have to learn how to live with the hairball and respect it.  If we get enough mileage under our belt, we may even come to relish being in situations of great ambiguity and fuzziness.  I know that I can't get enough of being there, which is why I do what I do. 

Organizations need to find a way to let the hairball be a hairy mess. The fuzziness of the innovation hairball makes its very presence uncomfortable for mature organizations.  Successful organizations have gotten to where they are by being able to sell, ship, and support things on a regular basis.  If the honest answer to the question "When will this be done?" is "We have no idea!" (which is what the hairball always says), a mature organization will be sorely tempted to lend clarity and structure to the hairball.  "Let's put you on a firm schedule with staged checkpoints!", it says.  "Here, let me clean up that mess of hair."  Instead, we have to be able to let the hairball be greasy and stinky, and learn how to celebrate it.  This is a hard thing to do, as leaving a pool of ambiguity unmopped rarely not squares well with meeting your quarterly numbers.  As to where and how to do that, well there are many books written around those subjects, so let's just leave it that we need to let the hair be fuzzy.  Don't shave it.  Find a place for it to grow.

To that point, my friend Bob Sutton wrote a wonderful post about his own experience of learning to respect the fuzzy front end.  In it he quotes Bill Coyne, who led innovation efforts at 3M for many years:

Finally, don't try to control or make safe the fumbling, panicky,
glorious adventure of discovery. Occasionally, one sees articles that
describe how to rationalize this process, how to take the fuzzy front
end and give it a nice haircut. This is self-defeating. We should allow
the fuzzy front end to be as unkempt and as fuzzy as we can. Long– term
growth depends on innovation, and innovation isn't neat. We stumble on
many of our best discoveries. If you want to follow the rapidly moving
leading edge, you must learn to live on your feet. And you must be
willing to make necessary, healthy stumble.

I really like Bob's post because of the way he relates the need for organizations to build up muscles around grappling with fuzziness with his own personal journey as a design thinker. 

As I've said earlier, at a personal level, being comfortable with the innovation process is largely a matter of learning by doing.  The more you're in hairy, fuzzy situations, and the more you find your way out of them, the more your confidence in your own creative process will grow.  At an individual level, if you want to be able to live in more innovative ways, you need to learn how to orbit the hairball.  That phrase, of course, is the title of Gordon McKenzie's masterpiece Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace, which occupies a hallowed spot on my bookshelf.  For me, McKenzie's masterpiece is a valuable personal "owner's manual", as it helps you find your own ways to avoid the temptation to shave the hairball.  It teaches you instead to find ways orbit it when necessary (which may be almost all the time for some folks).

Know thyself.  Understanding how to deal with ambiguity at a personal level is the key to unlocking one's creative confidence.  An organization which understands how to resist shaving the hairball, populated by people who know how to orbit the hairball, will be capable of bringing amazing things to life.

Know thyself.

This is number 18 in a series of principles of innovation.  It is an evolving work.  Please give me your thoughts, suggestions, and good ideas.