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We have a lot of problems. Maybe they’re even more reckoning than they used to be. As rapid changes unfold in our work communities, in our neighborhoods, within our families, this will be a period of transformative growth like none we’ve seen before and for many of us, like none we’ll see again. So, who is leading the definition of our new normal? 

 

For those of us inclined to take action as leaders in our communities, we’re not just shoring up the bridges to keep ourselves moving forward, we’re also working against the dark patterns in programs and business to build stronger, more productive and resilient communities altogether. As I’ve been watching the statements of social support flood my inbox, for the mostpart it’s not coming from the social support systems of my childhood: church and state. It’s coming from the brands I’ve invited into my lifestyle. They know we’re looking to the business community for leadership beyond their baseline products and services.

 

And we know that the big pivots we’re making to sustain our work and households are demanding. Our human nature resists this kind of challenge and uncertainty. In many ways we’ve accepted breadth over depth, en masse cheap over fewer, better things, and we’ve compromised both quality and stability. This plays right into the Capitalists’ Dilemma–when we focus on optimization over innovation, we remove jobs instead of bolstering economic growth through creating new work opportunities. Who wants to join the race to the bottom?

 

Innovation is our way out. 

 

At the entrepreneurial scale, it’s a deeply personal process that forces us to reckon with our ability to develop an inspiring vision and clearly communicate a compelling mission. Much of this also translates into bigger business leadership roles, and there’s the added dimension of organizational design.

 

For most of my career in tech, innovation and design thinking have been the parlance of our times. And yet, there are still so many approaches to product and service innovation, it’s a rare and delicate balance to achieve alignment in direction and purpose across the three critical functions required to innovate:

 

Development of market potential (The Business)

Connection with community (Experience Design)

Engineering the product or service (Technical Execution) 

 

Part of the alignment issues map back to the inconsistent assignment of value across the different functions. An even bigger part of the misalignment stems from different leadership styles across the functional domains. The most important part of my development as an innovator is likely my diverse skill set. I started as an engineer, evolved into a product designer, then startup founder. My most elegant systems thinking began with my engineering leaders, my enthusiastic drive for market growth started with my business leaders, and I cherish the skills from my designer’s tool kit because the human-centered approach to problem solving also works very well for developing collaborative teams. 

 

From team to team, our trickiest management issues are typically either managing up to influence the decisions that empower our team’s impact, or offering support within the team to envision new paths to achieving goals, open up opportunities, and inspire leaps of faith. And our issues run deep. To take the bold creative risks, we need to share our work with vulnerability. Sharing new ideas in unproven territory with decision makers is risky, so it helps to support an internal process that acknowledges our fear, takes responsibility for the good work we thrive on, and disarms the power in others’ judgement. How might we empower ourselves and our communities to show up with this kind of vulnerability? In my experience, we need to build an environment based on trust, kindness + respect.

 

To effectively develop the rich cultural foundation for inspired, empowered risk-taking and to manage the delicate balance we need for breakthrough work, I propose two additional dimensions to our conventional innovation model (market development, customer connection, technical success):

 

The upward force of our vision + mission as a leader

Why am I the leader to bring this vision to life? 

When we get clear on our mission, we’ll bring courageous and authentic leadership into our team’s creative culture, as well as our customer’s experience.

 

The grounding force of tapping into our cultural moment

How do we connect what we do, in our work and brands, to our specific audience’s culture, beyond what’s trending in popular culture?

When we dig deeply enough into the ‘why’ underlying our product decisions, we’ll find ourselves in the territory of deep human values. We create personal connections when our work aligns with those values. Connections, conversations and community development go hand-in-hand with every business decision from square zero. 

 

When we go from nothing but a nebulous idea to something tangible that moves people, the journey is marvelous. We’re often inspired by the outcomes of remarkably brave and generous innovation. So much so that some of us will embark on our own journey of creative leadership to take chances and envision new possibilities. We’ll find a massive treasure trove of strategic direction sent forth by tried and true tactics. And finally, once we dive into the trenches to put it all into practice, we’ll inevitably be challenged to bring our whole selves to work. Not every job requires this. Disruptive innovation calls us to bring it. For those of us that seek transformative experiences, setting forth new possibilities in mission-driven work is where it’s at.

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