Not Optimism, But Healthy Paranoia: A Key to Innovation Success

Shortly after I became Corporate Patent Strategist at Kimberly-Clark Corporation in 2001, I had the opportunity to address nearly several hundred people in the innovation community of K-C at a large internal technical conference held at Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia. My theme was “Healthy Paranoia” as the key to success in innovation. I drew upon the experience of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking naval officer held in captivity during the Vietnam War and a remarkable survivor and leader. James C. Collins’ famous book, Good to Great, describes a conversation with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy that helped him survive. Stockdale explained:

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

Then he asked Stockdale about the other POWs who didn’t survive. What made the difference? Who were they?

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

The need to confront brutal facts applies to all of us, and especially to those involved in innovation and business development. Foolish optimism leads businesses to neglect competitive threats, to ignore key information from early market studies that challenges expectations, or to make terrible mistakes with intellectual assets.

One small company with a terrific innovation recently told me not to worry about their intellectual property, for they were sure it was rock solid and didn’t need any further attention. I said, “OK, but every time I’ve heard that kind of talk in the past, it was a sure indicator of trouble.” Turns out their intellectual property estate was in shambles, and when I gently pointed out the gaps, they ended up asking me to prepare a new application, which we were able to do quickly just days before it would have been too late. Near disaster!

Innovation is always a high-risk activity. Those who do not recognize the risks and think everything is secure and sure to succeed are inevitable disappointed and often poorly prepared for the real risks they face. Those who practice “healthy paranoia” and recognize that there are risks and unknowns at every stage are much more likely to pay attention to those threats and mitigate them.

Mere paranoia and fear of the unknown is unhealthy, as it causes people to abandon the dream unnecessarily. The gloom-and-doom anti-innovation crowd lacks the faith that inspired Stockdale with the vision that he would prevail in the end. Successful innovation requires that faith, for it drives people to keep trying, to learn from their mistakes and learn from the market to iterate and find new approaches to succeed. A combination of faith in the end but a willingness to face and respond to the many brutal facts of reality – a “healthy paranoia” rather than blinding optimism – is what it takes to succeed.

The brutal facts of reality include inevitable failure in initial efforts. This is what separates the innovators from the rest. You are going to fail: the patent will receive a rejection, the initial launch may be a disaster, the partnership may go sour, the funding source may fall through, or the focus group will turn up their nose at your product. Success will go to those who learn from that, and iterate to improve and come back again. “Iterate to innovate.”

Keep the end vision intact while applying healthy paranoia to face and overcome the many innovation fatigue factors that will stand in your way.

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