To take a coarse idea and refine it and evolve it into a successful innovation is extremely challenging. It is not enough to believe in yourself and feel strongly about the potential of the end result. You have to have support. Last week Susanna got a smack in her head that made her realize some essentials about innovation.

April 11, 2013. “Dear Susanna, we have the pleasure to inform you that we have decided to support your request for funding the study “User involvement in a Community of Practice”…” As I read the email I started to sob uncontrollably. At a crowded bus on my way home. Apart from feeling very embarrassed about the situation as such, my strong reaction made me flabbergasted. Sure I cry a lot and usually get strong feelings about various sorts of situation, but this? In addition I was so relieved, with an intense feeling of joy and fulfillment that I have not felt in a very long time.

The last six months have been tough on me. The combination of doing aPhD without funding (chosen by me, so no offense to my university) and a consultancy firm without customers is not a viable business model. I have applied for research funding and been rejected. I have had clients on their way in, who withdrew for various reasons.

Gradually I have begun to seriously question how wise my decision to try to survive on my own devices was. Yet when I mentally put myself into the situation of going to the same office, at the same company, working with the same things with the same colleagues I simply cannot do it. What to do then?

Gradually a voice in my head has begun to ask me “Susanna, what’s the point? Don’t kid yourself that you are seriously doing a PhD, you cannot even get funding. You, a consultant, yeah right…”.“What’s the point?” is such a destructive sentence. It destroys self-esteem, it drains energy, it kills laughter and joy. I have felt increasingly empty, tense, edgy, not to say confused and frustrated.

The grant that I received was not about the money as such. It was about getting feedback and being recognized. The lack of feedback made me lose direction. I felt as if I was shouting in vacuum, regardless of what I did nothing came back. I had become Alice in Wonderland asking for directions without knowing where to go. So what was the point of even opening my mouth? What was the point of getting back to people, to write the column here when all I experienced was energy leaking out of my system?

The e-mail I got last week smacked me out of all that. For the first time my research was recognized by other members of a community, which I aspire to be part of, as something worth supporting. My reservoir of intrinsic motivation had gone empty and needed some recognition to fill up again. I still have no customers and the grant will help me a few months and then I’m potentially back at dire straits again, but what the heck, if I made it this time I can make it again!

My last half a year or so have taught me this: To take a coarse idea and refine it and evolve it into a successful innovation is extremely challenging. It is not enough to believe in yourself, and feel strongly about the potential of the end result. There will be battles won, but unfortunately also a lot of losses during the way. There will be times of darkness, when the work ahead is just too overwhelming. This is why innovators need a community to support them along the way. Organizations need to recognize this and help individuals to find the courage, determination and guts to take yet one more step forward. I give you who want innovation to happen in your communities or companies three words of advice how to:

1. Recognition.Don’t wait until the big break through. It may never come if you do not encourage the innovator continuously. It´s not about money. Invite the person to discuss his/her ideas at one of the management meetings, make sure to continuously ask questions and provide your thoughts too the work in whatever stage it is in. And don’t exercise too much judgment. You can be sure that the innovator not only questions him/herself but that a lot of persons around them do. They don’t need more of that. Instead celebrate steps forward despite them being “successful” or not. Because it is not until you reach the end of the process that you can truly say if a specific step was beneficial or not.

2. Flexibility. Not all innovators are the same. Some are more outspoken about the kind of support they need and when. Some aren’t. Like me, who bury myself in a cave and stop keeping in touch with the outside world with the feeling of not being worthy support if I have nothing to deliver.That´s when I need support and encouragement.

3. Go natural. Do it yourself. If you want authenticity you have to go through your version of the innovation experience yourself. Only then can you actually understand the pains and pleasures of the innovator.

That’s all for this time folks, I have research to do!

By Susanna Bill

About the author
Susanna Bill is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.

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