When we’re moving forward with a project, it provides us with reassurance. It feels like we’re heading somewhere, and from this we tend to infer that we’re heading in the right direction.
But this confuses momentum with direction.
In his book, Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar, argues that it’s essential for their movie directors to have a direction, even if it’s not necessarily the right one. A director must maintain the confidence of his crew, and in this sense, going somewhere is better than going nowhere. It’s a matter of leadership.
But what if that confidence is misplaced? What if your project is moving rapidly in the wrong direction? All the team moral in the world is not going to save a project if you’re building the wrong thing.
The risks are compounded in a business context, where a team left idle is a waste of money. As their manager, the business demands that you give them something to occupy them. Fast. So should you begin a project before you know exactly where you’re going, or should you wait for inspiration and risk wasting time and money?
At Pixar, Catmull explains that they solve this dilemma by encouraging their directors to “fail early”. The argument is that you can always adjust your direction once you have set off, as you learn.
And of course this is true, to a point. To be creative, you need the freedom to experiment and evolve your ideas as a project progresses. But innovation is about more than creativity. These kinds of course corrections are great for incremental refinement of existing concepts. But they rarely lead to anything entirely new… to something innovative.
In a software project I once worked on, I was asked to design a button, where I didn’t believe that one was required. When I questioned it, I was told that this type of software always had a button there, and that it was not within the scope of this “sprint” (a two week project cycle) to challenge things at that level. The trouble was that there never had been such an opportunity. We had started building things before we’d had a chance to consider the big picture or challenge any conventions, because we were following the “Scrum” project management methodology, which favours iterative, incremental development over a traditional sequential approach.
Innovation is about taking a totally new direction. Not making minor course corrections to a familiar route. Organisations that insist on maintaining momentum rarely innovate, because they never give themselves an opportunity to stop and plan an entirely new journey.
In other words, when you confuse momentum and direction, you also risk mistaking incremental refinement for genuine innovation.