[Leadership laws] The innovation law of Schrödinger's Cat

Innovation leaders must simultaneously get teams to celebrate progress made ... and to face that their results are not good enough yet.

[Leadership laws] The innovation law of Schrödinger's Cat
Innovation teams have at the same time come far ... and a long way left to go.

The Innovation Law of Schrödinger's Cat

Innovation leaders must simultaneously get their team to see and celebrate progress made ... and to face the reality that their results are (normally) not remotely good enough yet for handoff to an operational team.

Quick description

Schrödinger's thought experiment

One of the most meaningful–if admittedly somewhat depressive–insights about leading innovation efforts comes from a hypothetical cat.

Eminent physicist Erwin Schrödinger came up with a thought experiment in 1935. The relevance of his analog to the field of quantum mechanics doesn't concern us too much here. This is not a physics blog. What IS relevant is the experiment itself:

In it, Schrödinger posits "a hypothetical cat [that] may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead, while it is unobserved in a closed box, as a result of its fate being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur."

(I know, I know. "Subatomic events." "Both alive and dead." It's messy. Just go with it, or feel free to research the topic. It's actually pretty cool.)

And how does this relate to us?

Anyway, in a similar way, the work of innovation teams is "simultaneously both alive and dead too."

The best leaders of innovation efforts recognize this and manage to navigate this duality, without "opening the metaphorical box" and forcing the universe to settle on one state or the other.

Innovation teams are responsible for work as long as outcomes are not good enough for operators to take over.

It takes extraordinary effort creatively, analytically, collaboratively, and in more ways, just to make the progress that we have achieved at a given point. You might say that our work is "alive." We started from nothing and have created great insights and potentially viable solutions and businesses.

And yet, if we are still responsible for the work, we have not proven the Desirability, Viability, Feasibility, and Acceptability/ Agreeability of our proposed solution yet. Otherwise, operators would be clamoring to take over our work. In other words, our work is also still "dead." It would not pass muster under scrutiny from any kind of rigorous evaluation of the sufficiency of our work for our org's needs. Maybe we haven't shown yet how our idea can launch and scale soon enough. Or maybe we can't show yet how it might ever become big enough, or beat out powerful competitors, or earn a profit, or any of a host of other criteria. Without rational faith in the ongoing promise of our work, it should stop right away.

So our work starts out dead and has to earn life. And it can only ever take its first breath if we believe in it first. But until then, we haven't gotten there yet.

In other words, our work is both alive and dead at the same time.

How to apply the law

Team leaders play a critical role in managing this paradox. It may seem easy when written up like this. But I have seen too many leaders leaning too heavily into either the "great progress" or the "not good enough" side of it, causing problems either way. Only a careful balance and back-and-forth can succeed.

After all: Even just to have gotten where we are, the team may have put in heroic, punishing effort and reached fantastic insights. And yet, there may still be a very long road ahead.

It would be easy for teams to despair and give up at any of a thousand different points in an innovation project. Both internal exhaustion and external derision can sap a team of the energy and creativity to take on the impossible ... yet again ... and to persevere until they can make their outcomes "good enough" for operators to take over (or until they decide that objectively, there is no reasonable path for doing so, leading them to pivot or stop work).

On the other hand, teams may see all that they have achieved, the insights, the empathy, the technical or other breakthroughs, pat themselves on the back and, at best, mope why others don't see their brilliance.

So, just like the team must achieve impossible work, its leader must achieve an impossible leadership task:

Leaders must simultaneously celebrate the efforts put in and progress made ... while also getting the team to push much further, accepting that results are not remotely good enough yet.

This balance is tricky and requires massive empathy, trust, communication effectiveness, and other support.

But if a leader can manage to "keep Schrödinger's Cat both dead and alive" in this way, they pull off one of the greatest controllable leadership accomplishments toward helping their team reach success and, as a side effect, trust their leader even more and continue to choose to follow that leader.


Further reading

"Schrödinger's Cat." (n.d.). Wikipedia. Accessed Apr. 12, 2024.