The Dark Night of Innovation

Disillusion and despair? Worry is not to worry about, it is merely to be overcome

By Gary C. Graziano, AIA and Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D.

You’ve found a great opportunity to leverage existing capabilities, enhance the value of your product, and reduce costs. And, if you don’t do it, a competitor will, and you’ll lose the critical marketing and financial first mover advantages. You close your eyes, think great thoughts, and go. Fast forward a few years—you have staff and a marketing partner. Three weeks into the launch, you have 20 proposals outstanding and four booked sales with only three more needed to break even. Best of all, you have no outright rejections. The product is a hit. It resonates with the market, and dozens of spin-off opportunities are in the offing. Everything is going just like you thought it would when you and a customer dreamed up the idea over dinner three years ago.

Life is good, or so it seems from the outside looking in. You’re a genius compared to others who just can’t seem to get a new product jump-started. But, you know the truth and how the part about you being a genius just isn’t so. And, you also know you’re not out of the dark, yet.

Like most innovators, when you came up with the idea, it seemed pretty simple, and you were really excited. At the time, you thought that all you needed was to build a syndicated product out of what you were already doing for one customer at a time. What could be easier? The big idea was simple and the vision was clear; a no-brainer, really.

But soon you discovered that to make the one big idea a reality you needed to do five little things like developing a marketing plan. And, to do each one of those five little things, you found that you needed to do five littler things, like a market research project to determine need, design, and price point. And to do each of those things, you only needed to do five other things like developing a feasible product specification. Thinking about how “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” you plunged ahead into the starless and lonely “Dark Night of Innovation” where it’s easy to become disoriented, disillusioned, and despairing as the dawning of your vision is overshadowed by mountains of time, energy sapping tasks, details and problems.

Then, just as you thought you could see a brighter path ahead, an eclipse occurs: you’re adding server capacity after breakfast and again before dinner; your newest hire tells you that maybe he was too hasty in taking the job; and, your CFO says that while the pace of sales looks great it’s unclear how you’re going to bill for them. Now, just when you’re at your weariest, you stumble upon the most feared creatures of the Dark Night.

You arrive at the office to learn that the core business just won a great contract, and your stock options are now worth a lot more. This is great news—but then you hear that more people are needed to get the job done on time and on budget. Fresh from victory, the cheerful faces of the core business team come to visit, and it’s obvious that they have their smiling eyes on your development staffers who haven’t added anything to the bottom line yet. Next, you hear them say in the kindest way possible, “Look it’s only for a quarter.” How do you respond knowing that: 1) the business needs to make money today; and, 2) late projects have half the life-time profitability of on-time projects—even if they are 50% over budget? While you collect your thoughts and choose your words, you quietly ask yourself, “When will this dark night end?”

Almost every innovation goes through the dark night cycle—even in the best-managed companies. It’s a well-kept, dirty little secret in corporate America where everybody is expected to be upbeat all the time, and only positive results are discussed or rewarded. Prove it to yourself. Take one of your own projects and chart your emotional ups and downs. Then, compare notes with former team members. You’ll find they followed a similar path.

Innovation projects are generally trips into the unknown, fraught with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. They are not for the faint of heart, nor for those who cannot tolerate uncertainty because any estimate of required resources such as energy, time, or money is uncertain and likely to be off (i.e., low) by a factor of 50% or more. As Donald Douglas, the American engineer and author, once said:

“It is a hard rule of life, and I believe a healthy one, that no great plan is ever carried out without meeting and overcoming endless obstacles that come up to try the skill of man’s hand, the quality of his courage, and the endurance of his faith.”

Here are five rules for surviving the “Dark Night of Innovation:”

  1. Prepare your body and mind – for the physical and emotional stresses you will face, and be prepared to drink lots of coffee.
  2. Expect the unexpected – plan for well intentioned, but naïve, attacks on your resources; build in contingencies, and always have a “Plan B.”
  3. Bring a flashlight and lots of batteries – real success comes from managing 1,000 small failures, not from managing one big success.
  4. Keep a clear head – stay positive, keep the end goal always in mind—and share it often and enthusiastically with others.
  5. Find a guiding light – align yourself with a key management sponsor who supports the goal, has the skill, resources, and stamina to encourage and protect you and your project team—and the good sense and personal restraint not to micro manage your effort.

Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Innovation Focus Inc., a Lancaster, PA based international product development and marketing research firm. Chris is also past President of the Product Development and Management Association. 

Gary Graziano, AIA, an architect, is Vice President of Marketing for the High Concrete Group companies, part of Lancaster-based High Industries, Inc. He is also president-elect of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Product Development and Management Association and Secretary to the boards of United Disabilities Services, a Lancaster, PA-based non-profit, and AltusGroup, Inc., the nation’s largest precasting entity. 

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