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When the Black Dog BeDevils Innovation Change Agents

In the middle of writing my last book, Unleashing Innovation, I had a real honest-to-goodness nightmare. I could see my book floating on the shining Lake Michigan surface and, then suddenly, it sunk to the murky cold bottom, out of my reach. I wondered what the sinking book represented.

During this period of my professional life, I was going through one of those switchbacks you have when the work you are leading takes two steps forward and one step back. I did not realize it at the time, but large organizational change happens as a series of switchbacks. It’s never a straight shot. Innovation transformative change makes twists and turns while going up the slope.

Myths of Innovation Transformation

When you are leading a large change effort, the switchbacks feel personal. They can put you into a professional downward spiral. I recalled reading a biography of Winston Churchill where Churchill described his bouts of depression as “the black dog.” I started thinking about these switchback periods as a visit from “the Black Dog of innovation change.”

The Innovation Universe has four interconnected platforms required to turn legacy companies into innovation powerhouses.

  • FRAME: Setting the Stage. FRAME is the linkage of innovation with your company’s strategic architecture.

  • GENERATE: Customer-Driven Problem-Solving. GENERATE represents the art + science involved in creating innovations, from concept to commercialization.

  • EMBED: Organization Transformation. EMBED re-engineers the company’s culture, systems, and standards to enable innovation to thrive.

  • LEAD: Unleashing Human Potential. LEAD represents the new leadership skills required in the innovation age to guide your company through GENERATE, FRAME, and EMBED.

Looking at the four Innovation Universe platforms from the balcony view, as you consider switchbacks, you can see how the Black Dog might impede innovation progress.

View from the Balcony

In the EMBED platform, you see the pattern of switchbacks that occur within organizational transformation (the yellow highlighted areas expressed above in the diagram); two steps forward and one step back as the innovation initiative unfolds and matures. If you are not on the balcony, you may feel that the innovation initiative is waning when it is experiencing a switchback. Or you may feel that your senior leaders are not serious about innovation when a crisis arises in the day-to-day business and they take their focus off innovation for a time. From the balcony, you can see that this is natural and that it will most likely come back with a course correction or in an augmented form; but it will come back. Understanding that this is a natural occurrence will help lighten the load.

In the LEAD platform, there is a need to develop leadership skills for when the Black Dog of innovation change comes to visit. How you lead in this period is critical for you and your colleagues. From the balcony view, the leadership role is much clearer. Don’t do as I did and take it personally; realize that there is a natural pattern to large-scale change and use the switchback to your advantage. There are other leadership actions that you can take to make the switch back period productive, to tame the Black Dog. This also is a very good time to find other innovation change agents to network and form a community for sharing ideas and experiences.

Develop Your Network

When I started in innovation in a large multinational over 20 years ago, innovation was just getting started. There were only a handful of people like me who were leading massive innovation transformations. Social media was just getting started. I did not have a network of people who shared my experiences or worldview. Luckily that has changed. One of the best things innovation change leaders can do is to seek out other like-minded innovation change leaders who have had or are struggling with the same transformation issues. Just sharing the problems or how to turn-around a visit from the Black Dog of organizing change will help. Discussing and analyzing where you are in your pattern of change and asking for help from others is an important LEAD skill in the innovation economy.

Taming the Black Dog

I don’t always practice what I preach. As a practitioner, the black dog visited me several times in my 20-year span as the head of global innovation. I found it hard to talk to others about it. After many years of scuffling with the Black dog, I took a small step forward. I was teaching in the (University of Notre Dame) Certified iMentor Program, and I lead a discussion about how hard it is to lead innovation change. We discussed what happens when the Black Dog comes to visit. I sensed a great relief in the room, from my students and me. As an exhale of sorts; we shared common experiences. Without the benefit of a community, each of us thought we were the only one with whom the Black Dog visited. I started talking to more practitioners about switchbacks and the Black Dog and I saw a swell of interest. I was fortunate to conduct a workshop at the 2016 INNOVATION ROUNDTABLE® Summit in Copenhagen. While the other concurrent workshops were hosting topics on ecosystems, i-labs, garages, Internet of Things (IoT), and other hot innovation topics, I pitched the problem of the Black Dog. I didn’t think anyone would show up to my workshop, but they came with a great deal of energy and the need to get the Black Dog out into the open. With the help of the workshop attendees, we offer a set of ideas to help you thrive when the Black Dog comes to visit.

Making Switchbacks Pay-Off

If you find your company’s innovation transformation is experiencing a switchback, make the Black Dog heel by trying some of the ideas below. We divided them into ideas for your company and ideas for you; in the spirit of put your oxygen mask on before helping others. This does not mean you can stop doing your job. I like to think about your “job” as the core and the ideas for you as extensions beyond the core.

10 Ideas to Try During Switchbacks to Extend Your Innovation Practice Beyond the Core

  1. Find others - develop your i-network

  2. Find your voice - write, publish, blog, teach

  3. Develop yourself - learn, read, practice, study

  4. Become a teacher - bring others along

  5. Give back to your schools and communities - take innovation to NGOs

  6. Storytelling - practice pitching and storytelling

  7. Meditation - unleash your inner innovator

  8. Participate in innovation competitions in related fields

  9. Find a mentor or coach

  10. Be aware of your impact on people - LEAD from a positive place

10+ Ideas to Try During Switchbacks to Strengthen Your Core Innovation Practice

  1. Get a balcony view--Understand the phase/cycle you are in

  2. Go to the archives - bundle, re-innovate, spin-out, apply new tools to old ideas

  3. Go lateral - mobilize networks, enable affinity groups, develop contacts and find dissenters

  4. Go beyond boundaries - open innovation, develop ecosystems, work with suppliers

  5. Envision the next wave of continuous improvement for innovation

  6. Reiterate the strategy - create a new rendering that can inspire innovators

  7. Develop new sponsors - gain leadership support

  8. Enliven your communications platform - think of new ways to get the word out

  9. Bring in experts for talks with employees - brown bag lunches

  10. Conduct small, inexpensive, below-the-radar pilots - convince people to move in a new direction

+ Celebrate successes - you can’t do this enough


As I was picking up my materials at the Innovation Roundtable session on The Black Dog, a young woman came up to talk to me about a problem she was facing. In short, she wanted to know when the shift in innovation momentum was a transformation switchback or when it is not (and perhaps it was time to get out). Career changes are not one of those topics that you want to give advice on as you are rushing to the next session, it’s a weighty issue. I could see she was struggling with a big decision. I told her that I could not help her decide if she should leave her company, but that I could ask her a few questions that might help her thought process. I asked her a few diagnostic questions about her company’s innovation initiative. As you might imagine, many of these questions had to do with senior leader support, strategy and the grit of the company to stick to a plan of action. I could see by the way that she answered my questions, that she knew the answers already, but did not want them to be true. It seems she wanted to stay but she realized that her company would not continue to pursue innovation, her true calling.

It’s hard to know if a transformation is experiencing a switchback or a deathblow. I felt that tinge of despair a few times in my innovation practice. Each time that I felt it, I stayed. In my case, it paid off because it made me a better innovation practitioner. In each switchback, I had to help reinvent the innovation initiative to get it to the next level, but I also had to reinvent myself.

Now that you know switchbacks are natural, you don’t have to bolt at the first sign of an innovation slow down. Take your time to figure what is best for you and your company. The grass is always greener, as they say. Talking with a community of other innovation leads will help you make the best decision and help you tame the Black Dog of innovation change.

Dr. Nancy Tennant for the INNOVATION UNIVERSE

©2017 Nancy Tennant. All Rights Reserved.

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