Which route to success is better for you? 1) exceeding goals and expectations or 2) challenging goals and expectations to create something better.
The first option can lead to satisfaction, money, rewards, and recognition, even fame, for a while. The second option is harder and may lead nowhere. Even those who choose the road less traveled often burn out and fall back onto the safer path. So why take it?
If you stay on the first path, success grows more vulnerable over time and becomes demotivating.
Organizationally, the process of cascading goals from the top frequently hurts innovation and efficiency. In privately held and non-profit organizations, there is often a charismatic leader, family head, or controlling director that runs the show, crushing dissent blatantly or subtly. Or the leader picks an impenetrable executive team.
In publicly held companies, leaders bow to the faceless power of shareholders, demanding people meet short term gains over the imagination, experimentation, and adaptability required for longevity. They may give lip-service to creativity, but most corporations are still top-down instead of community-ruled.
Even if you or your organization starts with an openness to all ideas, once a level of success is achieved, ears shut down. Some leaders boast their support of collaboration without seeing this as another form of generating hand-clasping over conflict.
Neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has explored why successful people shut down to new ideas. He says when you look at highly accomplished people you find a level of eminence, at least in their own little world. So why should they do anything new? "It's really difficult to recognize that something is going wrong and needs to be changed," Sapolsky says. "...it's 1000 times harder to recognize that something's right but nevertheless, it's time to make a change."
When problems surface, most leaders just ask people to work faster or harder instead of seeking a different approach. I am sure this attitude plays into why the US has dropped to 10th place in the 2012 Global Innovation Index by Insead.
Some leaders act as if they are trying out new ideas when all they are doing is trying something out that worked for them years ago. This isn't change; it's regurgitation.
And then if you are given the rare chance to try something new and you make a mistake, the sharks eat you alive.
Some smart employees give up trying. Others take their ideas to competitors or start their own businesses. Unfortunately, once they win the revolution, they fall into the same trap of protecting their positions and making all decisions instead of opening channels to the new ideas of others.
From a neurological perspective, Sapolsky says the brain rules over innovation. People want to recreate what made them feel good and they silence threats to their credibility, control and admiration.
Margaret Heffernan explored this phenomenon in her brilliant Ted talk, Dare to Disagree. She says that our brain drives us to be with people mostly like ourselves. This makes life easier. Organizations strive to hire the best people and then fail to get the best out of them.
So what can you do personally and organizationally to challenge current thinking?
1. Seek creative confrontation
Heffernan suggests mustering the courage to work with people who seek to prove you wrong. Once you fill in the holes they discover, you will know you are right." It's a fantastic model of collaboration-thinking partners who aren't echo chambers."
Organizationally, build creative confrontation into team charters. Make sure ideas are questioned, not people. Ensure the challenges are intended to improve on ideas, not tear them down. Allow people to try out new ideas after they listen to challenges, bringing their improved suggestions to the table instead of giving up.
2. Practice emotional intelligence
Learn to recognize when you resist new ideas. This requires patience and present-moment awareness, two things busy people lack. You have to be willing to change your mind. Most people agree this is a sign of a real leader yet few leaders practice these skills.
3. Reward courageous thinking
Praise people who question the way things are done. Make "a passionate commitment to ongoing excellence" a requirement of leadership instead of "managing up to make the current leaders look good."
Sapolsky says that leaders (and families) should provide a "benevolent setting" where failures are an acceptable part of the learning process and people are not punitively blamed for mistakes. Don't insist on doing it right all the time. Sapolsky says, "You can encourage craziness 50% of the time because all we need is the other 50% to be phenomenal."
When people can actively explore new possibilities, they work with inspiration and excitement
4. Seek champions and partners instead of going it alone
One voice can easily be drowned out by a crowd of people trying to appease their leaders. Find one influential person who believes in and will champion your ideas to others. Then enroll others who will help you get the data you need to prove your ideas are right.
Seek people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. See the world through their eyes. Don't rely on the Internet. In another TED talk, Eli Pariser explains that search engines keep us in a filter bubble, only linking us to what matches our personal tastes instead of to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.
Long term success requires we cultivate the habit of being curious and accepting of other's opinions and ideas. Do you have the courage to go beyond your own success?