Key to a Successful Innovation Program is Setting Expectations

Innovation Roller Coaster

One of the most important equations I have ever learned is about people. It states: Satisfaction = Perception – Expectation. In other words, people’s happiness with an outcome is the difference between how they perceive a result and the expectations they had for it originally. Makes sense. We all intuitively know that managing expectations can help us achieve more seemingly positive results. But this formula is especially critical to remember when you are embarking on an innovation program. There are several reasons why:

Innovation is inherently exciting

It’s special. It’s what a business gets to do when it’s looking to the future and breaking out of the run-of-the-mill. So by definition, expectations are already high. All the more reason to carefully manage them.

Innovation is about charting the unknown

It’s about making discoveries. So it goes without saying that something in the end will turn out different than anticipated. Someone’s assumptions are bound to be wrong.

Anything beyond incremental innovation means taking on challenges and doing something you don’t know how to do

That means something you will try will fail. I guarantee it. And that usually leads to disappointment.

Innovation is a three-legged stool

You might achieve the right output, but did you achieve it at the right cost and on the right schedule? Maybe not. All three legs don’t always end up the expected lengths.

Innovation is about challenging the status quo

That’s inherently scary to people used to doing things a certain way, meaning there will always be those who are threatened by it. All the more reason to set expectations appropriately about what innovation can—and can’t—do.

I was reminded of this on a recent project. One of our teams completed a project that was by any measure a success—we created something the world had never seen, overcoming myriad daunting challenges along the way. Our result helped move a client’s business toward an important milestone. And the people we worked with directly were thrilled. But not everyone in the organization was as happy, however. In fact, some were downright disappointed. How could that be? It’s because, together with our direct client contact, we hadn’t led them to expect to change. They had set a vision in their minds for the outcome of the project, and no matter how objectively “great” the result (believe me…it rocked!), it didn’t match that vision.

It’s easy to think of innovation as a “brain business,” all about big ideas and figuring stuff out; combining creativity and analytics to achieve unexpected results. While that’s true, it’s just as much a people business. Everything we do is about getting people and organizations to try new things and think in different ways. In order to get them out in one piece, it’s critical to manage their expectations successfully.

Dan Ostrower

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Dan Ostrower