For connecting one human to another, it’s been said that any two people can be connected by acquaintances in six steps, hence the concept of “six degrees of separation.” The term “seven degrees of separation” occurred to me when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of airliner accidents in his outstanding book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He observes that extensive studies of airliner crashes show that the fatal tragedies often require a combination of seven things going wrong, any one of which might just be an inconvenience or minor problem by itself, but in combination with the others can lead to disaster. When it comes to connecting skilled humans to the very disasters that they have been carefully trained to avoid, there are seven degrees of separation to disaster.
While mechanical defects, fatigue, and bad weather are often involves in the seven degrees of separation, these airliner disasters almost always involve flaws in interpersonal communication. For example, there may be a copilot who is afraid to speak up and challenge the pilot when an obvious mistake is being made, or there is a lack of clarity in communicating a problem to the air traffic controllers. When trouble is brewing, success often requires extensive communication between the flight crew, other crew members, ATC staff, and sometimes others. Plans must be made, checked, implemented, revised, clarified, conveyed, and so forth, at many levels to handle an emergency properly. When crew members keep their mouths shut and don’t share what they know or sense, when courtesy or fear stops urgent information from being shared, or when there are cultural or linguistic barriers to effective communication, multiple mistakes and miscues can accumulate, whittling away at the separation between survival and disaster. It’s that way in the world of innovation as well.
Superior IQ and innovative genius is often far less important than the ability to communicate. Disasters in innovation and new product development are often due not to lack of intelligence among the innovators and corporate leaders, but gaps in communication. Launching a product and safely navigating it through the storms of the market can be much trickier than flying an airplane. The flight of a new product always involves malfunctions and emergencies that require communication skills above all. Information from the market must be effectively shared with the developers. Plans must be shared and communicated with external partners and internal teams. Benefits and features must be effectively communicated to end-users. Expectations must be clearly conveyed to suppliers and service providers. A plethora of data must be handled and shared in ways that inspire, motivate, drive action, and keep all parties aligned.
As in an airplane emergency, “yes men” are not the people you need around to help. You don’t want devil’s advocates either or professional naysayers–you need people willing to share what they know and challenge directions and assumptions that may mislead the project or the company. You need people who can help you confront and conquer the brutal facts of your present reality. (See my previous post on the Stockdale paradox and the danger of optimism.)
More than words alone are involved in the communication relays that are essential for a successful new product flight. Intangibles related to trust, loyalty, and common agendas must be in place. It’s all about relationships, and these take time and effort to build and maintain. Unreliable or misleading communication can break those relationships and jam navigation systems, as can abusing or taking advantage of partners and employees. Bonds of trust and mutual respect inside and outside the corporation are essential to maintaining effective communication and bringing about the alignment and common purpose needed for innovation to succeed.
As Gladwell notes, the seven errors that tend to accumulate in major airline disasters “are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill. . . . The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.” Ditto for the risky, high-flying adventure of innovation, where crashes are the rule rather than the exception. It’s not that the team wasn’t skilled or clever, but fundamental gaps in teamwork and communication resulted in the product launch smashing at full speed into barriers they failed to notice or attempting landings on runways that weren’t there. These disasters are always going to be far more likely than airplane disasters, but improved communication and teamwork across your innovation ecosystem can do much to bring you safely home.
In Conquering Innovation Fatigue, our chapter on the Horn of Innovation is devoted to illustrating the importance of including the innovation team in feedback loops that bring data from the marketplace to the innovators to allow them to make rapid on-the-fly adjustments for iterative innovation. Cut off that communication, and your innovators are flying blind. Blind innovation is what fills the convention “innovation funnel” with numerous abortive attempts that need to be weeded out. Keeping innovators inside the loop with clear and instant communication gives them a more clear map and helps them work with your team to develop the right flight plan for success.
Innovation success is all about abundant communication and teamwork, not hand-offs that isolate those with the vision from those at the helm. Innovation is disaster prone enough when everything is running well–no need wiping our a half-dozen of your degrees of separation from disaster by your own communication and relationship mistakes from the beginning.