What Can Dancing Teach Us About Innovation?

Many organizations treat corporate innovation as a child: unpredictable, capricious, and difficult to control. And as it often happens to us adults, we feel an irresistible urge to pontificate, to teach the child a lesson.

I’m amazed at the popularity of the idea to teach innovation a lesson. The sources of the lessons could be quite unorthodox. History? Of course. Art museums? Sure. Animals like elephants and monkeys? You bet. Soviet-era production? Without question. Hollywood movies like “The Karate Kid” and “Back to the Future”? How can one forget? And then comes my absolute favorite: a parking lot full of meat lovers.

Inspired by these examples, I decided to contribute my fair share to the list. As a competing amateur ballroom dancer, I would like to argue that dancing, too, can teach us about innovation. To prove my point, I want to share with you some wisdom that I have learned from my dancing teachers.

Make every move your own move

In a sense, there is no right way to dance. True, textbooks and competition guidelines describe recommended sequences of steps that every basic dancing move should comprise. Yet, every dancer knows that it is her or his body—its structure, flexibility, and responsiveness to music—that ultimately defines the choice of dancing moves and the way they are performed. You succeed in dancing only when every move fits your physical and spiritual abilities; you become a dancer only if every move becomes your move.

When launching innovation initiatives, organizations—especially those with a shorter innovation history—often look for “best practices,” a set of supposedly proven approaches that can guarantee a successful outcome of any given innovation project.

The truth is that there are no “best practices” in innovation management practice (remember Steve Shapiro’s “Best Practices Are Stupid”?). Instead of chasing chimeras, the organizations should try many different approaches to identify those that best fit their corporate strategy, organizational structure, the level of innovation maturity, and corporate culture.  Only after finding the moves that are its own moves, can the organization successfully perform an innovation dance.

You move with your feet, but you dance with your body

When I was taking my first dancing lessons, I was sure that once I memorized the sequence of the required steps – quick-quick-slow; quick-quick-slow – the art of dancing would be mastered. But then, I was told that my arms mattered, too. Later, I understood that without moving hips (not something taken for granted for a man of my age), my dance would look bland. Finally, I realized that it was my brain (or guts?) that ultimately drove my dance – bringing together my feet, arms, hips, shoulders, and, yes, my face expression. Curiously, the more experienced I became, the less I thought about steps as such.

Usually, organizations begin experimenting with innovation by creating a dedicated innovation unit—be it within R&D, business development, or IT—whose responsibility is to learn the first “steps” of innovation dance. It is crucially important for this group to not stay indefinitely focused on the pure technicalities of the innovation management process. Instead, the innovation group should rapidly reach out to Marketing to make sure that all planned innovation initiatives do incorporate customer feedback. In parallel, it should talk to human resources to ensure that employees who made significant contributions to innovation projects are properly recognized and rewarded.

And do not forget corporate communication whose help with celebrating early successes may play a crucial role in changing the way the organization views innovation. Finally, little will come out even of a brilliantly conceived innovation initiative, if the senior management team, the organization’s brain, would fail to support the innovation team. It is definitely for a reason that innovation is called a team sport.

Motion creates an emotion

I would lie telling you that I’m always in a dancing mood. No, quite often, I do not feel like dancing. But sometimes, I simply must practice, for example, to get prepared for my next lesson. So, like it or not, I get up, turn on the music, and take my first step. Then another. Then one more. And magic happens: my body sheds the rust and gets filled with life. The rhythm of the music begins pulsing in my blood vessels. My dancing motion has created a dancing emotion, and, fueled with this new emotion, my next step is getting better than the prior.

There are so many excuses for organizations to place innovation at the bottom of their to-do lists. “We don’t have time,” “We don’t have resources,” “Our CEO doesn’t care”—have we all not heard this before?

The only way to shake off the innovation lethargy is to leave the proverbial couch and take the first step. Then another. Then one more. Trust me, sooner or later, the motion of repeated innovation “steps” will change the spirit of the innovation group and then gradually take hold of the emotional state of the whole organization. Repeated acts of innovation will become a habit of it.

So, as they say in TV commercials: what are you waiting for? Turn on the music and go to the dancing floor. Better yet, invite a colleague of yours to dance with you. Quick-quick-slow. Quick-quick-slow.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

 Image credit: from the author’s family album

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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