Don't Confuse Passion with Competence

Passion drives success.The most successful innovators are consistently portrayed as possessing a passion that borders on dogmatism. They work tirelessly to bend reality to achieve their vision, with Steve Jobs and his "reality distortion field" serving as the prototypical example.

There's no doubt that passion is a critical component of innovation. After all, innovation is awfully hard work, with plenty of false starts. Rosabeth Moss Kanter teaches that everything can look like a failure in the middle. Mike Tyson puts it another way: "Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face." Passion is necessary to keep pushing when the punch inevitably lands.

And without passion it's hard to do something that's meaningfully different from what has been done before. It's next to impossible to prove that a new idea will work. Passion and intuition are necessary ingredients for disruptive success.

But leaders overseeing innovation efforts inside their companies need to be careful of mistaking passion for competence. The philosopher George Santayana defined a fanatic as someone redoubles their effort when they have forgotten their aim. We've all encountered the innovator who keeps pounding the table, insisting that his vision is right despite mounting evidence (and bills) suggesting otherwise.

Passion only matters if it leads to an innovation that delivers impact, whether that impact is measured in revenues, profits, improved process performance, or something entirely differently. This is one reason why good venture capital investors dole out capital in stages. They are waiting to see if the vision that looks so great on paper bears any resemblance to reality.

When I'm evaluating entrepreneurs and their ideas, I look for "innovation bipolarity," a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first-rate intelligence: "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Entrepreneurs should be able to argue passionately that their idea will change the world, and then, without skipping a beat, honestly assess the risks standing in the way of its success and describe what they are doing to mitigate them.

Of course, there are examples of dogmatism and fanaticism triumphing in the face of healthy skepticism. But that's not a scalable approach to innovation.


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