Restlessness: the path to innovation

On a Tuesday in 1954, H.W. Sweatt, the president of Minneapolis-Honeywell (a leading control systems company that would go on to be called Honeywell) had an important message to deliver. According to Jeffrey Rodengen, in his The Legend of Honeywell, H.W. assembled some division executives and sales people and shared some thoughts about innovation.

“To me,” he began, “one of our greatest weaknesses and one that I think is growing in this company is a failure to keep ‘a spirit of restlessness’ fully alive in our organization.” He went on to describe that he observed people in the sixty-nine year old company had gotten too comfortable with that status quo or how things exist today and lacked the time or the mental energy to do the “thinking, planning, and imaging that must be done to protect the future of the company – not next year, but in the decades that lie ahead.” In a successful business it is easy to overlook the constant change that is “inherent in every business picture,” and efficiency can not take precedence over changing and leading. To continuing to pioneer new frontiers with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“As for me, while I always want to strive for perfection and never want to be satisfied with less, if I had to choose, I would prefer to settle for a little less perfection today and a little more imagining for tomorrow.” He recognize that risk-taking would lead to mistakes, errors, and sacrifice immediate profits, but the threat of withering and dying was too real. Sweatt, who is now the namesake of Honeywell’s highest award for engineers/scientists considered this spirit of restlessness “One of our most priceless and fundamental possessions.” 

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation recounted a time when a proud tradition and commitment to excellence conflicted with a spirit of innovation. The team at Disney Animation was making the movie Bolt and ran into a technical challenge that was set to delay the film unacceptably by over 6 months. After a pep talk from leadership and some creative problem solving by a few team members, the problem was resolved in a few days. So, why did the larger team think it would take six months to do something that ended up taking only a few days? Why the conservatism? “The answer, I think,” Ed surmised, “lay in the fact that for too long, the leaders of Disney Animation placed a higher value on error prevention than anything else.” 

No one had to remind them about the legacy of the studio, the innovations and advancements that had been made under Walt Disney’s leadership, and the pressure that they faced to get things right. “Their employees knew there would be repercussions if mistakes were made, so the primary goal was never to make any.” But estimating that a problem would be solved with no errors, was absolutely the wrong choice in this situation. “Seeking to eliminate failure was in this instance – and I would argue, most instances – precisely the wrong thing to do,” he continued. It was important in the end to turn the focus “away from the notion of the ‘right’ way to fix the problem to actually fixing the problem – a subtle, but important distinction.” 

In the final tally, perfection and innovation have to be held in balance. If things are too perfect, efficiency might be high, but innovation suffers. If things are too innovative, there may be wasteful rework and abandoned short-term profits. The higher order problem to be solved might not be as obvious as the problems of yesterday that prompted the processes, procedures, and thinking prevelant today. There isn’t a warning label that exists in the world because someone wasn’t first harmed or injured. So, these “perfect” processes, documentation, and support rise up to solve yesterday’s problems. Maybe not the problems of the future. 

The spirit of restlessness, that H.W. Sweatt encouraged and was demonstrated by the small team at Disney Animation, is the attitude that keeps clever people pushing forward, with dissatisfaction to today’s constraints, imagining the future, and possibly most importantly, trading in short-term perfection along the way for the discovery of solutions to larger, more impactful, problems. It’s restlessness, in fact, that uncomfortable feeling that we have outgrown the status quo or might be missing something bigger, that puts us on the path of innovation.

This article originally posted on LInkedIn Pulse.