THE BLOG

The Innovation Seesaw

08/14/2014 04:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2014

Warning: Unchecked innovation may be hazardous to your health. As a recovering innovator myself, I continue to revere Bob Dylan's adage that "he not busy being born is busy dying." But I have also come to appreciate that innovation must be tempered by prudence. There is just so much innovation that can be tolerated at any one time in a life, organization, or society. If the innovative temperament is on one end of the seesaw, then the prudential spirit is on the other - ideally with the two in balance. Tipped too much towards one side or the other, either stagnation or anarchy results - and disruption leads to destruction.

The innovative temperament is optimistic, confident, and certain that progress is possible and worth the risk and resources. In contrast, the prudential temperament is doubtful, cautious, risk-adverse, respectful of tradition and rules, and fearful of the future. One craves and even creates disruption; the other shuns it. The innovative spirit is intuitive, embracing the new, and often simplifying what it takes to achieve change. The prudential spirit, on the other hand, seeks more assurance, analysis, and details to be convinced. One finds change exhilarating; the other stressful.

The innovative spirit dwells on the vulnerability, opportunity cost, and the dire consequences of inaction - and would be willing to sacrifice the mediocre to achieve the exceptional. The prudential spirit reminds the innovator of the lessons learned from the past, and what might now be at stake. The former finds change inevitable and exciting; the latter seeks stability and harmony.

These temperaments persist side-by-side within each of us, inside all organizations, and across a society. The key is to recognize the virtues and excesses of each, and respect and call upon the other. Since neither stasis nor chaos is sustainable, responsible leadership seeks and protects a balance of the innovative and prudential.

In this era where we tend to glorify innovation, we can lose touch with the need to build structures that guard against innovation groupthink. Leaders must sanction open dialogue and dissent, skeptical analysis, openness to alternative scenarios and forecasts, and an exit strategy if an idea fails. Leaders should promote agility, but signal caution and accountability as well. An organization needs its naysayers - and ideas worthy of investment should first be subject to a gantlet where they are tested and modified. These roles need not be prescribed or polarizing, but woven into the fabric of organizations and organizational decision-making.

Part of the loneliness of leadership is that risky choices, in the end, need to be made. With an uncertain and often unforgiving future, leaders put their legacy on the line daily. But the courage to act must be matched by the courage to question. In the process of romanticizing innovation, we need to be careful not to vilify those people, processes, and roles that keep the innovator honest, clear thinking, and acting responsibly.

When I look back at my experiences starting new ventures, some disappointed (and perhaps failed), while others succeeded in ways I hadn't fully anticipated. Very few, though, achieved precisely what I initially predicted. Those that succeeded benefited by the conversations that led to the starting line. No idea, no matter how good, survived those conversations intact, but instead came out better as a result. Part of selling of a new initiative requires an honest airing with those not yet caught up in the enthusiasm of the idea. The challenge is not to command compliance but to build a coalition of the willing.

I do not recall any major idea that emerged from a formal meeting or process designed to generate ideas. Instead, serendipitous conversations surfaced problems, concerns, or half-baked notions that then led to further conversations that eventually led to a plan of action. I came to appreciate the humbling reality that I never actually had a completely original idea nor could claim exclusive credit for any single outcome. Instead I became adept at borrowing and reshaping what I learned in discussion with stakeholders, both internal and external. The results were transformational - and the prospects, had we not innovated, likely fatal.

Leaders place themselves in the path of ideas and shape these into innovations. On the way, they expose these to the harsh critics around them and earn their support when possible. This is a messy, unrelenting, iterative, collaborative process that draws upon the creativity and skepticism of those who help to mold that plan so it stands a chance of success - from those caught up in the frenzy of innovation to those meticulously ensuring that all facets have been carefully considered.

Jay A. Halfond is the former dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College, an enterprise that pioneered online distance learning among other innovations. He is now on Boston University's faculty, teaching Innovation in Higher Education, among other subjects.