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Innovation Hurts

Everybody’s always looking for the key to being a successful innovator. Do I have what it takes to really make a difference by doing something completely new? I found this article at Harvard Business Review that points out one major characteristic of the really successful innovators: high tolerance for pain.

Every organization I’ve observed that’s serious about being innovative is filled with people in genuine pain — not just stress or anxiety or deadline pressure, and certainly not discomfort. Pain. This can be the physical strain of consecutive all-nighters to test every meaningful configuration of a website before it goes live, to the emotional pain of subordinating your vision of the innovation to the vicissitudes of customer taste. Ideally, innovators go through pain so their customers and clients won’t have to.

The International Association for the Study of Pain Management defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience…” That fairly captures a dominant innovation sensation at world-class innovators. The innovation cultures of Google, Samsung or Steve Jobs’ Apple or Andy Grove’s Intel, for example, make painfully clear that successful innovators have high thresholds for pain. Unpleasant sensory and emotional experiences abound. Yes, there’s also fun and exhilaration. But innovation leadership is less about clichés celebrating creativity, compelling visions or getting the best out of people than successfully helping innovators beat what hurts. Overcoming resistance is not the same as pushing through pain.

That shouldn’t surprise. Confronting pain is integral to most other elite endeavors. World-class athletes and dancers explicitly train for pain even beyond the point of injury. Special Forces operators such as the Navy SEALs are expected to “Embrace the Suck.” Arguably one of the great flaws of formal business and technical education is that inculcating disciplined self-awareness around pain management is neither part of the culture nor the curriculum. But elite innovators, not unlike their athletic counterparts, understand and accept that they will likely hurt themselves and/or their colleagues on the path to innovation excellence. As Joseph Schumpeter of “creative destruction” fame notably observed, “successful innovation requires an act of will, not of intellect.”

Pain — much more than stress, discomfort or anxiety — is feedback. Successful innovators — like successful athletes— understand their personal pain frequencies and bandwidth. The ability to determine whether a twinge is the beginning of a problem or assurance that a new muscle memory is taking root is what separates elite performers from the ordinary. Just as superior athletes have learned how to interpret and adjust to “good” or “bad” pain, sophisticated innovators — precisely because they’re used to pushing the boundaries of their competences and capabilities — can ascertain when painful persistence is likely to pay off….More at Confronting the Pain of Innovation – Michael Schrage – Harvard 

I think this is really inspiring. I want to discipline myself to endure the pain and persevere to really do something that’s going to make a difference.

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