Attachment—The Enemy of Innovation

by Sandy Nelson on September 16, 2011

My background in architecture shaped me into an inveterate planner. Think about it. Architects typically take no definitive action toward the creation of tangible value until plans are drawn, reviewed, assessed, debated and fully coordinated.

When I wake up in the morning, I make a plan for the day. When I retire at night, I muse over options for the next day. I am most effective when I have a solid plan in mind for the coming week, month, quarter and year.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not so anal that I have to have every second of the day blocked out. It’s just that I like to think through options and choose what I believe to be the most effective paths forward in most aspects of my work and life. I feel better and more organized when I am clear about what matters, what my priorities are and have in mind a logical sequence for execution.

And, remarkably enough, when I am disciplined about planning and execution, I accomplish and contribute more. So, to state the obvious, I like to plan.

Now, having extolled the virtues of planning, let me point out that my training and years of practice in architecture also taught me to let go of plans the very moment it becomes obvious that all the care and thought that went into developing an idea and planning a strategy for execution prove ineffective.

At a relatively early point in my career, I was assigned responsibility for the design of a very large project. Impossibly, five different and competing entities had approval rights over the products of my creativity.

As you might imagine, I dove into the opportunity with full enthusiasm and a deep commitment to proving that I was worthy of the task at hand. Believing that carefully attentive listening and disciplined analysis were the keys to understanding my clients and their interests and priorities, I diligently interviewed and carefully analyzed the results from each of the five customers with approval rights.

Once I felt that I had a solid grasp of goals, concerns, interests and priorities, I thoughtfully explored options until I felt confident that I had envisioned, planned and delineated the perfect solution. Amazingly enough, the first four of my five customers agreed and readily approved my designs. Eureka!

Unfortunately, approval was not forthcoming from the fifth. Undeterred, I fought the good fight with total confidence that through compelling reason, I would be able to influence the one outlier to come around to my point of view and join in consensus with his four competitors to offer final approval.

Not so.

Frankly, I was devastated. How could four of five align around the brilliance of my ideas and the fifth fail to see the wisdom in following suit?

Bitterly disappointed and plaintively resisting, I was summarily directed by my firm to develop an alternative approach. And so I did.

To make a long story short, this exact process was repeated time and time again. The only significant variable was the identity of the one dissenter. Each time, it was different, rotating among the five with each taking turns in declining approval. Nevertheless, I suffered mightily with each successive rejection.

Then, one bright morning months into the process, I awoke with the realization that there simply was no “right” solution to this puzzle. At that moment, I came to see that my job was not to discover and reveal the one true answer. It was to take each setback as an opportunity for deepening exploration of alternative possibilities until an ultimate, progressively refined innovation emerged that evoked passion, excitement and a willingness to invest among all five customers.

To put it another way, attachment is the enemy of innovation. Letting go of the need to be right is a powerful catalyst for success. (Judgement is limiting. Appreciative inquiry is liberating.)

So, the moral of this story is this: please plan. Planning is good, helpful and valuable. But, at the end of the day, being willing to let go is essential to success.

Your job today is to notice if and where you are attached to a plan you have thoughtfully constructed or to doggedly being right about something. When you see either, take a deep breath and let go. You’ll be surprised by the possibilities that will inevitably appear.

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