Innovation and inner polarities: Why innovation is the ultimate place for growth

Innovation and inner polarities: Why innovation is the ultimate place for growth

Innovation has not been an all-time success. We have seen innovation teams come and go, incubators built and dismantled, accelerators accelerating and then fading away. By now, many organizations have introduced design thinking, lean start-up, agile or, scrum. They have created office spaces that have become more of a hip experience than anything else, with high-end coffee machines, bean bags, and “fuck-up nights” (with pizza).


In reality, few organizations are satisfied with their innovation performance.


Let us forget for a moment the failed attempts and the unkept promises. What if we turned our attention to what innovation requires from people?


Innovation, unlike almost any other dimension of business, has the ability to put us into gridlock. As innovators, we need to be able to hold a bold vision and deliver short-term results; to have our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground; to maintain stability and galvanize change; to honor what is working and seek the freedom to create something new; to strive for excellence and be willing to fail; to gain trust and be willing to disappoint.


The challenge is that choosing between these opposing goals is not a problem to be solved – a problem can have a “right,” or at least a “best” answer. Instead, these opposing goals are polarities to be managed. One pole is not better than the other, nor truer or more worthy to be chosen over the other. The poles are interdependent and complementary.


The best metaphor to describe a polarity might be that of our in-breath and out-breath. If you had a choice, would you prefer to only inhale or only exhale? To live, of course, we must do both. Inhaling and exhaling are opposites, but they work together as part of a vital system.


Our ability to navigate these external polarities is very much connected to how we deal with our internal polarities: the ones we hold deep within ourselves. The ones that make us human.

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Polarity #1: Being in control and longing for freedom

Nachman of Bratslav, a Rabbi and spiritual teacher who lived in the late 18th- and early-19th century said: “The world is for all of us, a very narrow bridge.” We are afraid of the unknown. We come from somewhere that we do not understand, and we are heading somewhere we do not know. And so, we create our little universes of control, where we believe we cannot fall, cannot fail, cannot falter.

Yet at the same time, we long to experience freedom – grown-up freedom: to make our own choices, to go where we want to go, to love who we want to love. But equally, we long for childlike freedom: to play, create, feel, express. To listen to stories, to make a mess.

Polarity #2: Belonging to a tribe and being unique

When we grow up, our sense of self is shaped by the people and systems around us: our family, society, culture, and ideology. How we understand the world is shaped by the opinions and expectations of others. When we behave how we are supposed to behave, we feel a sense of belonging. We are part of the group; we are embraced by our tribe.

But on that road to belonging, we start to leave out parts of ourselves. We exclude the parts of us that make us stand out or are incongruent with what others expect from us. We compromise our uniqueness. Many of us, at some point in our lives, will feel the pull to make sense of the world on our own terms, to stand back from our cultural surroundings and decide what it means to live life in a certain way. And eventually, we come to understand that we are always changing and that who we are is something we can still negotiate.

Polarity #3: Holding the present and dreaming about the future

Life is at its most vibrant when we are in the here and now. Any thoughts about the future, or even the past, take us away from our current experience. At the same time, living only in the present can result in a lack of meaningful progress.

Humans also need hope, to dream about unfulfilled potential. We need to believe that everything is always evolving and that we are not stagnant. Kermit the Frog said it best: “Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection. The Lovers, the Dreamers, and me.”

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Life is at its most vibrant when we are in the here and now. At the same time, living only in the present can result in a lack of meaningful progress. #innovation #polarities #human #personaldevelopment Click To Tweet

The human side of innovation

Working in innovation exposes these polarities more urgently, with our managers looking over our shoulders to check if we know what we are doing and if we are in control. At the same time, they expect bold new ideas. They expect us to take risks, challenge the status quo, and ruffle some feathers. We are held in the grip of today’s success, while creating an entirely new horizon.

Leaders need great inner maturity to embrace these complexities in life and work. However, this inner maturity does not come for free.

It is not about what we know, but how we know. We do not need more information to fill our brains. Instead, we need to change the inner working of our brains; we need transformation. If we were to use smartphones as a metaphor, adding information or skills would be equivalent to downloading new files or apps. Transformation is about changing your operating system.

Why innovation is the ultimate place for growth and development

Be warned, there is no such thing as an “innovation weekend” or a “leadership hackathon.” At THNK, we believe that leadership operating system upgrades take time.

These development journeys can take months or even years. Leaders should not be left alone to self-reflect but taken on a journey where they learn in relation to others and where they are challenged to rediscover themselves. They need to struggle with polarities in real and tangible innovation projects, while working on their inner journeys along three developmental paths:

Firstly, it is about growing up into their new form of mind through challenging experiences, feedback, and coaching. Secondly, these leaders need to wake up to the deep understanding that everything is connected through meditation or other reflective practices. And finally, it is about cleaning up the experiences from their past that have created patterns that block growth.

To be an innovator requires us to dig deep into ourselves and to find our way among our very human and very real polarities. We must face our hopes, our fears, and our longings: who we are and who we could be. This is why innovation is the ultimate place for growth and development.

We are not saying throw all your leaders into innovation. Instead, we are telling you to expose your leaders to innovation projects and innovation challenges while giving them strong developmental support. If we start trusting that innovation is the place to develop our leaders, then we will have leaders who are prepared to lead.

To learn how to navigate your inner polarities to become a better innovator, join our upcoming Innovation Bootcamp.