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The Power in Persistence

While conclusions draw our attention, it’s the persistence of effort that comes before which are the real cause for celebration

Today we saw the first person in the UK vaccinated for a condition that was nearly unknown just 12 months earlier providing one of the most remarkable demonstrations of science we’ve ever seen. While the vaccination story for COVID-19 is indeed a scientific and medical triumph on many fronts, it is only one small part of a much larger story that is defined by persistence.

When we consider innovation what is often the focus is the end product — the discovery, the ‘thing’ (tool, technology, process) that is generated from it. What gets little attention is the journey toward that destination and in doing so, we miss one of the critical features of innovation: the power in persistence. Persistence brings together a charge — a calling, a motivation, a quest — to accomplish something along with the grit to maintain commitment to that goal in the face of challenges.

Grit is a concept made popular by Angela Duckworth in her book by the same name which draws on extensive research from human psychology, education, and business and looks at what makes people succeed through adversity, delays, environmental challenges, and other issues that could easily derail a plan or stop forward momentum altogether. Grit is what helps people persevere in spite of challenges, not because of them.

Beyond Perseverance

Grit is seen as an almost heroic act — one made up of courage, resilience, conscientiousness, passion, and perseverence — and while it makes for a good rallying cry, it’s also limited in its scope. One way is because it’s highly individualized, which doesn’t account for how something like a vaccine gets developed and distributed to a planet’s population within 18 months of the discovery of a virus. That is a team effort of the highest order.

Grit is a personal set of qualities that can be nurtured and certainly can help innovators to drive forward through the inevitable ups and downs that come with creating something new. Persistence is that quiet, sustained determination to try over and again through not just the black and white, but the enormous grey that accompanies most innovation work.

It’s about showing up every day. It’s about the very un-sexy parts of innovation – boredom, repetitiveness, waiting for results, paperwork and administration, running the business, staffing your team, and cleaning up the shop or restaurant each night before going home. It’s the quiet rainy afternoon when no one is coming into the store. It’s the sitting in the lab waiting on a culture to grow. It’s tweaking your communications materials to try an engage someone and attract them to your work. It’s about learning to podcast or take better pictures and edit them using software you’re unfamiliar with. It’s about going over lesson material with a student for the fourth time.

And it is about doing it over and again consistently.

Our Giants

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton (1675)

Great innovators do the work. The Wright Brothers drew on their deep understanding of bicycles to better understand how to make their airplane prototype fly. Their knowledge came from a community of people who had been developing the bicycle over the previous decades. They built their plane on the backs of two generations of bicycle makers. Boeing, Airbus, and Elon Musk’s Space X all owe some success to the Wright Brothers and their peers who quickly advanced the power of flight. All of these discoveries and innovations were made possible not just by insight, but persistence.

Newton’s quote about standing on the shoulders of giants is not just about building on the work that came before you, but putting in the work, developing the craft, and executing day after day just like those before you. It’s honouring work through persistence of effort.

Why does this matter? It matters when we start convincing people that innovation comes from ideas and being clever and maybe grit.

The Practice

Seth Godin’s recent book is on the power in persistence and is a manual for innovators — veteran and newbies alike. He knows all about it. He’s been posting at least one (sometimes more) blog post every day for a decade. In that span he’s created new businesses, a podcast, multiple books, all the while doing teaching, charity work, and other projects. He’s exceptional in his output, but if you follow his work closely you’ll realize he’s not that exceptional at all: he’s persistent. As he likes to say 50 per cent of all his blog posts are below average.

In this latest work he lambastes the idea of ‘writers block’ — which I substitute for innovators block sometimes — as a fictitious idea. There is no such thing as ‘plumbers block’ or ‘firefighter’s block’ so why writers’ block? His argument is that it is about fear, but also about consistency of effort. The more we write, the easier it gets to get over fear of writing. The quality might vary, but just as the best professional team athletes take the most shots, swings, or kicks they also fail the most because of it (and succeed the most because of it). They don’t failure dissuade them. They are persistent.

In a recent interview with Debbie Millman on her brilliant Design Matters podcast they speak about this topic of persistence and why great products require it. While I recommend listening to the entire episode, the clip below starts with a reflection by Debbie on an earlier experience with someone at an event speaking about the challenges of reaching a blog audience.

Measurement of Innovation

If we are going to assess how innovative we are, we need to examine our persistence. If someone I’m working with is not consistent in their effort they are far less likely to succeed than if they are. A look at innovation throughout history shows that most of the best, most impactful innovations are created when there was persistence in the effort of the innovator, consistency in the level of support, and a maintenance of trust within the organization (when done within one). From Xerox PARC to Bell Labs to James Dyson and Muhammed Yunus or Malala Yousafzai, these individuals persisted in their effort to develop ideas, products, or services over time and have changed the way things are done.

If we want to measure innovation and output, let’s first look to see if people showed up. Did we deliver persistent support or episodic nods? Are we committed to the long-term or the moment?

Track and monitor what you’re doing as you do it and over time you’ll see whether your effort is persistent or not. This might be the best indicator of success you can find and help you see whether you are standing on the shoulders of giants or looking up at them.

This kind of work is done by effort (grit) and habit (practice) and both are done by design. If your organization is seeking to be persistent in your innovation efforts and needs help, reach out and I can help.

Image credits Vincent Boussereuz Epic Mickey

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