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Innovation That’s ‘Born To Run’

Three lessons that business leaders and innovators can learn from Bruce Springsteen’s music

In brainstorming sessions, we often use a technique called “WW_D?” It’s our variation on the popular saying: “What would Jesus do?” The exercise challenges participants to see an opportunity through the perspective of a big thinker—anyone from Henry Ford to Bill Gates—and then asks them to solve the issue at hand the way these heavyweights would. The exercise often leads to solid, unexpected ideas.

It is with this practice in mind that we pose the question: When it comes to innovation, what would the Boss, aka Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, do?

(Author’s note: Yes, one of us—we are not naming names, but he was born in Camden, N.J., and has the initials RLV—spent way too much of his youth on the Jersey Shore. So just for fun, we’ll try to make some great innovation points using some great Springsteen lines.)

Why cite Bruce? At the age of 61, and album sales north of 120 million, he knows something about thriving in a world that is constantly changing. Springsteen is reported to have said, “I like to write about people whose souls are in danger, who are at risk” like those “broken heroes on a last chance power drive” from his epic song Born to Run.  Like most of his music, this song takes us on the universal journey from despair to resilience; the lyrics demonstrate an empathetic understanding of our shared crisis and struggle. Yale Professor L.S. Godleski says that “the appeal, however, is in knowing that Springsteen won’t leave us at the point of desperation but instead will guide us through the steps of resilience by gently illustrating the psychological coping mechanisms of hopeful anticipation, social support, family, and the healing powers of love and intimacy.”

And that is what the best bosses do. They get us through failures. Failure can either be embarrassing and career ending or it can be an important part of the drive to innovation success. That’s point number one. Leaders celebrate failure. Knowing what doesn’t work leads us closer to discovering what does. We call it looking for the “bounce.” Bruce would say, “Come on up for the rising.”

Point two follows logically. The reason you are constantly innovating—accepting the failures that occur along the way—is because you want to shape your own future and not react to it.

That, of course, does not mitigate risk or guarantee that you will never face a crisis. Good innovation leaders understand how to empower risk and turn crisis into a rallying cry. Great innovation leaders steer clear, learning from the all-or-nothing crisis of others and know how to hedge their bets (more about that in a minute).

Livin’ in the Future

It is the role of the CEO or the Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) to lead us to the promised land—to get us successfully past the crises (badlands) that occur more often and less predictably than ever before. It is no easy task. Today the life span of one of our 500 largest companies is under 40 years—less than half that of a human being.

And that brings us to point three. When we talk to CEOs, we often hear something like this: “I need my organization to consistently get better at innovation because it is a key business driver that determines our success and survival, BUT we always seem to wait until there is a crisis until we commit sufficient resources to innovation.”

CInO Bruce wouldn’t let you fade away or wait for a crisis (and neither should you)

Survival, not to mention success, depends on an organization’s ability to thrive amidst the often radical and complex societal, economic and technology shifts that continue to change business year after year. Yet many organizations do very little to equip themselves with the capacity to hope, learn, act and fail forward. Said differently, they do little to prepare their organization to consistently innovate. To “prove it all night,” they should:

  1. Have a dynamic innovation portfolio strategy
  2. Focus on continuous/spontaneous/opportunity-driven innovation (vs. episodic or sequential)
  3. Create a culture of innovation organization (and not limit to a department)

But instead of doing that, they, as the CEOs tell us, typically wait until they find their company in a moment of deep crisis before they invest in the push for the promised land. By then, they wind up wounded, not even dead (down in jungle land). There may be darkness on the edge of town, but today when it comes to leading your company’s growth efforts with innovation expertise, there is no reason for your organization to be a casualty when you could walk in the sun.

‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.

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