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In his acclaimed bestseller, Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about what he calls the “Flywheel Effect.” He describes how small actions and decisions, made over a period of time, add up to sustained momentum and success for great companies—like small nudges building momentum on a flywheel. I agree and riffing on his metaphor, I would add that our flywheel can be turning in either direction. It’s possible that a series of seemingly small decisions and incremental actions can gradually undermine our success. So the key question becomes: Which direction is your flywheel turning?

As companies and as individuals, it’s easy to get lulled into habits that we don’t even realize we have—some productive, some counterproductive—and what was productive yesterday can become counterproductive tomorrow. Every industry has its orthodoxies and assumptions about how to do business and what brings success. As individuals, we acquire experience and expertise and gradually adopt personal assumptions—often without even realizing we’re doing it. Those assumptions produce a myriad of small incremental choices that can either support of undermine our capacity to innovate.

Inside any successful organization, many things are working or it wouldn’t be a going concern. So it’s not surprising that people will want to sustain that success. Yet, that simple impulse to keep what’s working can produce small incremental decisions that can slow or halt innovation. Any change in business processes may be seen as a potential danger. A new idea that doesn’t quite fit with prior assumptions is quickly rejected. Mistakes are seen as problems that must be fixed in order to restore the smooth functioning of the enterprise. Simply expecting everyone to follow established business processes and procedures can gradually become a drag on the organizations ability to adapt and stay nimble. It’s all very logical and well-intended but the effect is to resist any substantial change, gradually eroding the capacity in innovate—even actively opposing it.

Innovative companies understand this and take steps to overcome it. They create proactive feedback loops that continually monitor the effectiveness of business processes. They continually track their customers and competitors to quickly detect signals that may point to needed changes. Thoughtful experimentation is encouraged, not only as a way to test new ideas, but to maintain the organization’s proficiency at testing and implementing new ideas. There’s an awareness of the need to promote a collective mindset that expects to make continual adjustments, rather than simply protect what’s working.

There’s an interesting paradox here. The more strenuously we strive to preserve our success…the more we do what we already know will work…the more we look for confirmation and reinforcement of what we believe…the more momentum we create in a very anti-innovation direction.

It’s by letting go of that need to be right and have certainty, by being willing to reexamine our assumption and beliefs, that we build momentum in favor of innovation. The more we’re willing to explore new possibilities…the more actively we look for exceptions that might expose flaws…the more we consider a variety of interpretations…the more we seek to discover new insights…the more momentum we create in support of innovation.

Some of us need to stop and reverse what has become our anti-innovation flywheel. For others the challenge is to build more innovation momentum. And what’s essential in both cases is that we’re clear about which direction we’re pushing.

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