The Responsibilities of Management Series, #9: A Willingness to Innovate

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 18, Issue No. 3a
July 1, 2019

By Dan Coughlin


We all know how important innovation is for being a great company. We read about it all the time in books and magazines. We hear about the latest feats of Google and Facebook and Apple. We know we should innovate, but somehow we don’t do it as effectively as we should.


Little by little our willingness to innovate starts to erode.

We have a stack of tasks right in front of us that need to get done today. Then a frazzled customer, employee, or vendor emails us, and needs our attention RIGHT NOW!

Our child has an out-of-town soccer tournament this weekend, and we’re leaving bright and early on Friday morning to get there on time. To make up for the lost day we work 12-14 hours Monday through Thursday to get all of the work done that has to be done by end-of-day on Friday.

Little by little our willingness starts to erode to do all that it takes to add more value to our customers than they are already receiving. We convince ourselves that we are too tired and too strained to actually be able to innovate.

In order to become great innovators you need to be willing in multiple areas.

A Willingness to Understand

Innovation is the process of creating more value for customers than they are receiving right now. Value is anything that increases the chances the other person will achieve what he or she wants to achieve. In order to create more value for your customers, you have to be willing to understand what would be of more value. This requires intentional effort in terms of empathetic listening, observation, and stepping into the customer experience.

Be willing to talk with your customers about what they are getting out of their interaction with you. Empathy means working to understand what another person is thinking and feeling, and then responding in effective ways. Empathy is the critical first step in innovation. You can’t be empathetic if you are constantly racing to complete your to-do list. Step back and really observe your customers in action. See what they go through when they use your product or service. If at all possible, be a customer of your company. Understand what the experience is like of being your customer.

A Willingness to Think

Once you’ve talked with your customers, observed your customers, and been your customer, then step back and think. Be willing to actually stop doing tasks, and consider what you’ve learned. It’s not enough to just understand your customer. Now is the time to think about what your organization can do to meet the subtle customer needs that you now understand better than before.

Take out a blank sheet of paper and just start jotting down notes on what would be more valuable for the customer. What would help the customer to achieve his or her desired outcomes better than what they are getting right now? This investment of time on your part will greatly help you move toward being a true innovator, but you first need to be willing to think.

A Willingness to Adjust

When you learn more about your customers, you will become uncomfortable. You see that your organization is capable of creating more value for those people, and you know that this is going to require intentional effort on your part to make it happen. You are at a fork in the road. Do you stay on Status Quo Street, or switch lanes to the Innovation Highway? And you still have all those same cranky customers, employees, and vendors who want you RIGHT NOW. This innovation thing is not going to be easy.

A Willingness to Persevere

As you begin to innovate in developing approaches, products, and services that could add more value to your customers, your customers will need time to get used to the newness of it all. They are also extremely busy. They might not like the new version even if it does provide more value. Be patient and keep persevering. People didn’t want to go from albums to cds or from wired phones to wireless phones. It all seemed so odd back then. Fortunately, customers got over it. Persevere in getting your improved approaches, products, and services accepted in the marketplace. Again, this takes time and energy and money. Hang in there. It will be worth it. And if you fail in your first 50 attempts, keep innovating. Remember that whole Thomas Edison story about the light bulb.

A Willingness to Iterate

Most innovations are iterations. There were MP3 music players before the iPod. There were handheld phones before the iPhone. There were computers before the iMac. There were horse-drawn carriages before there were horse-powered cars. Take what exists and make it better one iteration at a time. Or combine five iterations at a time, and really set the world on fire. This takes time and effort to think about what exists, and what could be done to make it better.

A Willingness to Revolutionize

And then there are innovations that revolutionize the world!

Gutenberg’s movable type changed the world. Around 1450 Johannes Gutenberg created the first movable type printing press, which made the mass production of books possible. He revolutionized the world.

Step back. Think about your customers. What do they really want and need?

Your answer could revolutionize the world if you have a willingness to revolutionize.


If you are going to innovate, you have to be willing to innovate. You have to be willing to understand, think, adjust, persevere, iterate, and revolutionize. Remember the old saying: all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. Here’s a new version: all tasks and no innovations makes Jane a very tired employee who keeps losing customers.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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