The Key to Innovation


Edgar Papke

Edgar Papke is globally recognized as an award-winning executive coach, author, and speaker. His newest book, The Elephant in the Boardroom, has received a number of outstanding reviews and accolades. He has been featured by FoxNews, Forbes, and AMA Playbook.

Edgar is a student and teacher of leadership, conflict, and the human art of business. As an international thought leader, he has been recognized for his innovative approaches to leadership and business. He has delivered over 2500 keynote speeches, lectures, and workshops to audiences worldwide and consistently ranks among CEOs and executives as one of the field’s most impactful and influential speakers. His acknowledgements include recognition as the 2013 Impact Speaker of the Year and 2006 International Speaker of the Year by Vistage International. With over 19,000 members, Vistage is the world’s largest organization for Chief Executives and business leaders.

Webinar Transcript

Announcer: Edgar Papke is a student and teacher of leadership, conflict, and the human art of business. Globally recognized as an award-winning executive coach, author, and speaker, he's delivered over 2,500 keynote speeches, lectures, and workshops to audiences worldwide and consistently ranks among CEOs and executives as one of the field's most influential speakers. Edgar is the author of The Elephant in the Boardroom, his newest book that explores how leaders use and manage conflict to achieve greater levels of success, and True Alignment, delivering a unique and preeminent framework for linking customer motivation and experience with brand, culture, and leadership. We're excited to introduce Edgar Papke.

Edgar: Hello, my name is Edgar Papke, and I'm a leadership psychologist, and speaker, and author. I wrote the books, The Elephant in the Boardroom and True Alignment. What I'd like to do is share some thinking with you today about innovation and what I believe is the truth about innovation.

That is, for innovation to occur and to be very creative and how it is that we go about innovating, it requires us to engage in conflict. In other words, there is two pieces here that I find over and over occur; when we think about innovation, we think about coming up with new ideas and thinking about a future-desired state and moving towards it. One is that it requires us to have a level of alignment, alignment around what it is that we're trying to achieve and why, the emotional driver behind it, and then also about how we get there.

So we need a level of alignment to be successful in pursuing innovation. The other thing that we need is an understanding of what drives that innovation, which is really about conflict. When we think about definitions of innovation, immediately, what comes to mind is change, and coming up with new ideas, and perhaps finding new and better ways to be competitive in our businesses, to bring new products and services to market.

What I'd like you to do is just step back for a moment and take a look at what really happens when we engage in business and innovation. Business is the most advanced art form that we participate in as human beings, and art is the creative expression of human need and desire. If you think about it through that lens, you find very quickly of what innovation is, is the creative pursuit of that fulfillment of our human needs and desires and how we go about doing that.

In our business society, the way that we do that is through the creation of products and services. I get to spend time throughout the course of the year with over 1,000 CEOs, and business leaders, and executives. Inevitably, in any conversation, and coaching conversation, or team conversation that I engage them in, there is always two things that come to the forefront. That's the idea of: how do we become more aligned to be more productive and to become more innovative? So what we've wind up talking about is alignment and innovation, and inevitably, that leads us to talk about conflict and how it is that we effectively use conflict, which I will suggest is the truth about innovation; is that without conflict, we can't innovate.

Once we get alignment around the ideas of the what and the why, and we have a clarity and understanding of what it is we're trying to achieve together, and we have the emotional drive that engages people in what it is we're trying to accomplish, and we have an idea of how to move to that future state going forward, very often what we start thinking about: What are the steps, or what are the strategies and plans that we want to engage in?

This happens very often when I speak to leaders and leadership teams. Regardless of the size of organization or what it is that we're trying to accomplish, inevitably, we wind up in the conversation. So now, what actually gets in the way of us being innovative? Ideas about agility, and speed, and how facet we can, and what the quality of the work that we do to try and achieve what we're trying to achieve. Inevitably, when we stop to explore that and what the true barriers are, then we wind up talking about conflict. The type of conflict and the use of conflict then actually gets in the way. It doesn't really help us to move forward.

Now, I started this by saying that the truth about innovation is that it's driven by conflict, which then creates a very interesting tension in our lives. That is, that we understand that is the conflict and the tension that exists between our current state, and what it is that we want and desire, and how it is that we innovate to accomplish that, to get that. At the same time, it's that same conflict that creates our avoidance of that conflict, that create the barriers and really, truly create the barriers to innovate and work together collaboratively and moving together forward.

Nothing gets done by itself. A good friend and I - Charlie Lalo is his name - we were talking a little bit about...and I was expressing to him some of these observations about what happens around conflict and innovation. He said, "Well, just remember the age-old saying, necessity is the mother of invention." What that necessity does is it defines for us that there is something there that we want, and that tension that's there, and then how do we use that tension. That's what I have found to be the truth about innovation; is how do we actually take that conflict, that natural tension and move it to a place and use it and change our paradigm or our thinking about that to say it is that same conflict that generates the innovation and the outcomes that we're seeking and looking for? How does that happen?

So what I want to do is take a couple of minutes to explore that with you and share with you some key ideas and what I observe and what I see happening around the how. One is our ability to actually step into the conversation, to confront the conflict, to actually talk about the big elephants in the room that get in the way of the innovation and that keep us from moving forward. I talk about this in my new book, The Elephant in the Boardroom.

We did a study of over 4,000 leaders, and we discovered that only 1 out of 10 is truly comfortable with confronting conflict. So we begin with a simple idea of: Why is that? What makes that happen? As you can imagine, if we're not using that conflict in constructive ways, the negativity of the avoidance of the conflict or the defensiveness that comes from us as human beings when we engage in conflict very quickly gets in the way.

As a matter of fact, it leads us to dysfunctions that get in the way of the innovation that we so much want. So what I've discovered here, first and foremost, and the how to, is that we need to be able as a leader or a group of leaders, to be able to constructively confront conflict. Let me give you a very brief definition of what I mean by confront. Confront is to face to, to actually take a look at what the conflict is, to be able to step into the truth, I like to say. Now, that doesn't mean that your truth is the same as mine. It doesn't have to be. What I'm talking about here is the ability to confront, to be open and honest, to express what we think, see, and feel, to express our ideas. Of course, you're probably thinking, "Well, there is a lot of fear in that, isn't there?"

You're absolutely right, there is. It's natural for us to be fearful about that. By the way, I went back to those leaders, and I asked them the question of what is that. What is that fear about? It turns out that there is two big reasons. The first one is that leaders are afraid, and people are afraid of being incompetent in addressing and dealing with their conflicts. They have differences of thought. They have difference of opinion. They have difference of how the feel about things. That fear gets in the way of our ability to express. In other words, if I don't think I can create an outcome that I'm looking for, by stepping into it, I'm actually getting even more in the way of it. That's subsequently going to keep us from coming together to innovate further. No doubt about that, right?

The second thing that they're afraid of is not being liked, to not being liked. Now, this is very interesting when you start taking a look at human behavior. What I'd like to ask; what instances have you ever lied? Inevitably, I'd just say, "Raise your hand if you've ever lied," and everybody raises their hand. Interesting enough, the person that doesn't raise their hand, everybody looks at them and calls them a liar, right?

If we take a look at what the origin of that inability to express our truth is about being liked and loved, we just look at ourselves as children. When we're caught in a defensive situation - and it begins when we're very, very young, as a matter of fact, according to a child psychologist, it starts around 16 to 18 months old - the reason that we lie, and the first person we lie to, by the way, is our mother, is our parent, is because we're afraid, even at the look of anger, or frustration, or disappointment that we're going to lose that love.

Now, I know that sounds very, very emotional. Keep in mind everything that we do stems from our emotion, whether a leader or a part of a group, a team trying to accomplish something and innovate. It is those fears and that inability to express ourselves to one another that gets in the way of bringing together the ideas that actually drive innovation. So first and foremost, one of the things to keep in mind here is that as leaders, if we're responsible for creating change and innovation in the world, one of the things we have to be able to do is confront that conflict effectively, just step into it. I like to say, "Show me a leader that doesn't confront conflict, and I'll show you the biggest elephant in the room."

When we think about how it is that we come together to be innovative, one of the first pieces that becomes necessary is this idea of alignment. So let me just take a couple of minutes here to define that for you. At a high level, when we think about alignment, we think about a group of people coming together, and three things need to come into alignment. The first one is: what is it that we're trying to achieve? The second one is: why? Because we need to have that emotional driver behind it. When we think about business as a human art, we realize, again, that everything that we do is emotional.

There is some really great, great myths and fallacies in our world. In fact, the greatest spoken fallacy worldwide is that the sun rises, and it does endear with turns. The number two great fallacy is don't take this personal, and we all know that's not true, because everything in life is personal. It's through our lens, it's emotional.

So when we think about what it is we're trying to achieve and the reason why it becomes so important, it is because it helps us in understanding what the emotional driver is that we connect to, that drives our behavior and how it is that we work together, which then leads us to the how. The how, which I'll talk about a little bit later on in greater detail, is how it is that we actually work with one another and what really generates through our ability to collaborate and work with one another to create that innovation.

So as an example of this, I recently met Asa Feldt, and she's the President and CEO of The Hunger Project. Now, when you think about what The Hunger Project does, you'd think that they're busy trying to feed people worldwide for those that are impoverished, or hungry, or not in developed enough nations to really sustain the ability to feed their population well.

But interestingly enough, in listening to her, the way she described it was that their vision and what is so different from that that one would expect, because their vision is to end hunger by pioneering sustainable grassroots women-centered strategies and then for the widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. So the what takes on a much different definition, and to add some clarity to that, it becomes so important. Because that's what they're innovating towards, and then of course, we can see the depth of the why, that human experience and what the purpose of the organization is.

Interestingly enough, to add to that, she made a comment that I thought was really interesting and very powerful. She said, "We're moving from a place of being considered a not-for-profit and becoming a for-purpose organization." When you think about purpose and when you think about the passion that that drives, then we can captivate and really leverage the why, and then we start getting into the how. How we innovate stems from the idea of how it is that we collaborate, and we come together, and we're able to gauge in meaningful and deep conversations about innovation and what we're trying to achieve, why are we trying to achieve it, and then have a deeper, richer understanding and align to patterns of behavior that really allow us to be truly innovative.

The next key dimension and set of patterns of behaviors that we engage in. So first and foremost, we have to be able to confront the conflicts. This includes the conflict of when we're in a state of being or in the present, and we have an idea of what the future and the future possibility is, to even confront and talk about that forward.

Then the next question is: Well, how does that happen? There is a simple idea that artists work by themselves and that they come up with ideas and innovations about new ideas. It's about creating change. When you think about that creative capability, very often we think about people working by themselves, and coming up with ideas, and sitting in a corner, and making a new discovery. Well, by a closer examination, what we're actually finding is that what they're doing is taking something that's already known, a current state.

There is knowledge. There is information. There is a technology, perhaps, that's already there. Then what we're actually doing is building on that. It's much like taking an idea and building another idea on top of it. In other words, nothing is really that original in of itself until we put something new in place. So that definition of innovation and creativity is the building of one idea upon another and how it is that we build to do that. It turns out then that we're really not doing anything by ourselves. It's always about how we bring it together.

Asa Feldt, who I mentioned before, she looks at it from the standpoint of taking it from a place of "I can," or "I can't," I should say, and the barriers to that innovation moving forward, from an "I can't" to an "I can" state and then ultimately to "we can" state.

What that does, it reminds us that this collaboration becomes so necessary; working together, and bringing our ideas together, and how that happens. All too often when we're stressed, and we're put in situations of urgency to innovate, what happens is that we get caught up in an energy that's more about defensiveness or bringing our own ideas forward and then of course, arguing for it and advocating our point of view, and then what happens is the collaboration breaks down, simply because we don't listen to one another. So then there is the mention of collaboration. When we think about what it takes to get there, not only do confront we need to be able to be open enough to collaborate, and the only way to get there is to listen to one another.

Listening, the idea of community bringing together people, requires something that is absolute to all of us as human beings, and that's mutual respect. Mutual respect is I treat you in a manner you want to be treated, you treat me in a manner that I want to be treated. That kind of happen until I listen to understand who you are, and in reciprocity, you do that for me. For if we don't show mutual respect to each other, if we don't listen to one another and understand who we're, that becomes problematic. Because from there, there is no trust, and without trust, we can't be open, and we can't express what we think, see, and feel without the risk of it being misused or even worse yet not being heard.

Being heard is essential to us, because it fulfills our need from importance and significance, the sense of self-worth that comes from that. One of the key problems in organizations that we hear about over and over is this idea of whether people are engaged or not. If you ask people about how they feel being engaged, it's about being a part of, being able to participate, being included, being asked for input. Even giving feedback, in a way, is showing people that they're important, they're significant, and that they count.

Well, you come to think about it. If you think about a high performing team or group that are innovating together, one of the cornerstones of their capability to do that is to listen well to one another. Now, this is not as easy as it sounds. We all know this from our practical experience of our relationships, don't we? So what we need to be able to do is not just work at bringing the truth to the table to advocate what we think, see, and feel, more importantly, is to be able to realize the quality of listening has so much to do with our capability to collaborate, so that we innovate together, to all work together towards that common outcome. It's essential to us.

This is also why in our work with leaders, the key elements of self-knowledge and behavioral change that makes them more effective as a leader is simply the ability to learn how to listen better. The art of listening is one of the most important elements and dimensions of how it is that we collaborate and innovate together. In whatever setting, whether it be a technical, artistic community setting, whatever it is, as we come together, this becomes very often the pivotal point as to whether you move and continue to innovate together or whether there is barriers and challenges to doing that.

Another dimension of collaboration. So we have confronting what the condition is and what we're trying to achieve, and we're confronting the truth about where it is that we want to go. There is that dimension of collaboration, of coming together, and how we all listen to each other, and how it is that we show each other mutual respect, so we can be open and truthful with one another about what we're thinking, seeing, and feeling and what our ideas are about.

Another dimension that comes to play then is speed and agility. These are two of the next key pieces and forces that have been with us for, by the way, quite a while, yet we see these showing up more and more and more again. What we called urgency now has become agility, the ability to respond and act to all organizations that shift and move very quickly.

Well, of course, if we're rigid, if we're unable to innovate, we realize that's not going to happen, is it? We realize that the longer that we hang onto a thought without expressing it, or the longer that we disallow someone else from expressing themselves, because we're not listening to them, or perhaps we're stepping on what they're thinking and becoming defensive and becoming argumentative in a negative and deconstructive way, well, we don't move forward.

So this idea of agility and speed is actually quite fascinating, isn't it? Because the way to get there is what I've just been talking about. In other words, we can't expect ourselves to be agile and make quick shifts and changes if we're not open to them, if we're not expressing those ideas in an open and truthful manner, in a trusting way with one another. We're not going to be able to get there if we're not listening to one another at the levels that we need to.

I like to often say that within complexity lives simplicity. While we can build very complex systems, processes, and systems which to engage in agility and to be faster and how it is that we innovate and bring new ideas into the world, whether it be in our marketplaces, for the benefit of the world much like solving the problems of hunger, whatever it is that we're trying to engage in, what we find is that very simply that speed and agility is about human behavior. It really comes back down to something that's so simple, that is so underrated, which is that everything that we do in business, everything that we do in the world around us is about relationship and the quality of those relationships.

If you think about what a really great mutual respecting, mutually benefiting relationship is about, is the simple idea of collaboration, of confronting what's going on in our lives, confronting about what's creating a gap or barrier to where we want to go. How do we overcome those? How can we bring new ideas, new technologies, and new ways to do things into the world? In the end, it will always come back to this simple idea, much like business. Everything that we're doing in our world is a human art form, an expression of human desire and need and how we go about doing that. In the end, the quality of our collaboration is about the quality of relationships, and through that, we attain agility. Through that, we attain speed. Through that, we attain true innovation.

So what I'd like to do now is kind of put a little wrapper on this and what I've just shared with you, and so I'm thinking here about what the truth about innovation truly is. So we started with this idea that innovation and what's required to be successful in innovation and what drives it, one is our ability for alignment, to come together around what it is we're trying to achieve, why, the emotional deep desire need that we all share for innovating together to come to the outcome that we're all seeking, and of course, the how. And the how being all about how it is that we work together and how it is that we collaborate.

So in that, the first piece is to be able to confront conflict, to realize that at the core of all innovation is conflict, the natural tension that lies between what it is that we have in our current state, and what it is that we want in our future state, and how it is that we create something that satisfies human need and desire, and what it is that we're seeking.

As part of that, we need to be able to move that confrontation to a place of being able to share truth with one another, which is not just about sharing what we think, see, and feel with one another. It's also about listening to one another and that when we think about creativity and the simplicity of creativity is the building of one idea upon one another, which is about how it is that we not only express ourselves. It is how that we listen to ourselves and that we build very innovative and very collaborative relationships that are built on the ideas of trust and mutual respect and of mutual benefit to one another.

With that in mind then, what I'd like to do is share one last thought with you. That in the end this is about you. It is. It always is. That's why everything in life is personal; everything in life is driven through our emotion.

What I'd like to do is just ask you to think a little bit about your own legacy. You come into the world with nothing. You leave with nothing. The only thing that's left is how people perceive the relationship to you and who you are and what your purpose in life is. I know that's something you've probably heard before, and it sounds like you're that kind of like...well, the self-development talk that you're very familiar with.

What I'd like you to do is just remind you how important it is, how important to our leaders, to understand what your own purpose is and your ability to be resilient and come into your life in way that regardless of what is getting in your way, that you're constantly striving to achieve what it is that you want to achieve. Whether it's new technology, whether it's building a wonderful worldwide community to help resolve issues of hunger worldwide, it's all about you and what you bring to it. It's about your own fulfillment, what it is that you're seeking and looking for.

Along with that resilience, there is one thing that I will ask you to do, and that's practice. Practice being a contributor to innovation. Practice by expressing yourself openly and honestly. If you're a leader or a leader of people, build an organization and community around you which people are able to express themselves, because they're going to be heard. Identify a clear way of being that allows people to truly, truly innovate for themselves and become who they want to be, who they can be, so they move from a place of not being fearful of innovating, rather stepping into it and understanding that in the end, that's what our lives as human beings are about.

So thank you. My intention is to be of utmost service to you as I can. Please don't hesitate. You be in touch, I'll be in touch in return, and all my best to you. Thank you.