Many innovators stress that invention is a spark of inspiration followed by long hours of perspiration. Along with perspiration comes the point at which your great new innovation saturates your ability to move forward. For marathon runners, this is hitting the wall. The point at which skill matters less than the mental fortitude to continue. For the innovator, it’s becoming saturated with your idea.
Runners train for the wall. They gradually build up the miles so that the body gets used to the duration and stresses of marathon running. Innovators need to do the same thing. The mind and body need to endure tremendous amounts of stress to bring innovations to market. These stresses can create mental roadblocks that delay or even destroy your great idea. Getting past them requires the same metal fortitude as breaking through the marathon runners wall.
In innovative endeavors, the brain gets saturated with problems to the point where it just cannot continue. When this happens, progress crawls to a halt. Frustration sets in and the mood turns melancholy. Breaking through the saturation “wall” requires realizing you have hit it.
Signs of Saturation
Everyone’s saturation limit is different. Some people get frustrated quickly when they hit the first road block while others grind on a problem even though they are making little or no progress. Breaking through the saturation state is then a matter of figuring out when you or your team have hit it. Signs of saturation include:
- Progress Anxiety: If you have an overwhelming desire to get something done yet nothing is getting done, then your capacity to solve problems is saturated. This usually means you are overwhelmed with work and can’t figure out what to work on.
- Defect Explosion: Are the number of mistakes being made accelerating while the number of problems solved dwindling? This is a sure sign of impaired problem solving.
- Abnormal Antisocial Behavior: If you don’t normally sequester yourself and the urge to do so is getting stronger and stronger, then you are probably fast on your way to saturation. There are times when being alone is warranted but if it’s for extended periods of time, that is not normal. Your team can fall into this trap if they stop talking to each other.
- Short Fuse: When normally cordial people start snapping at other co-workers or start saying “I don’t have time for this”, then they are on the slippery slope to saturation. Recognizing this sign can be difficult since there are legitimate times to not have your time wasted. This is clearly person dependent and does take some skill to recognize.
- Lack of Progress: Is different than having progress anxiety. Lack of progress is when there are so many open questions that you don’t want to do anything. The fear is that all of the open issues will lead to be reworked once resolved.
- The Blame Game: Frustration with open ended issues and lack of progress make people lash out and blame others. There are times when these claims are legitimate. Separate legitimate blame from saturation blame revolves around the frequency and severity. An occasional “we can’t make progress because of X” is fine. When it’s the excuse for all problems, then it’s time to do something.
There are many more signs of saturation. The list above is the most common. In general, you need to level set what is normal everyday frustrations for you and your group. Anything outside these limits might indicate saturation. The sooner you identify the saturated state, the better off you will be. In the worst case scenario, saturation leads to complete burn out.
Once you have figured out what makes you saturated, the next step is to become unsaturated. The thing about the saturated state is that it tends to cluster around deadlines. The more intense the deadline, the higher the probably of saturation. This is primarily driven by managements desire to meet schedule deadlines. Some techniques that work to become unsaturated include:
- Take a Walk: Removing yourself from your work environment can clear your mind enough to reduce frustrations and the feeling of being overwhelmed. It does not have to be a long walk. Five or ten minutes usually works, more if it’s a particularly touch problem.
- Go Out To Lunch With Coworkers: This sounds strange but not eating at your desk gives your brain a needed break. Go out and enjoy a long lunch. Talk about the weather, sports or your kids. Even though you are not actively working on the problem, your subconscious is still at it.
- Ask for Help: Asking for help can immediately benefit your mood and ability to solve problems. Having a different perspective will usually uncover new avenues of inquiry. This then leads to a better understanding of the problem. Be warned that some help might saturate you even more with unrelated tasks or dead ends. Your best bet is to go to someone whom you know will not do that.
- Explain Your Problem To Someone: This is similar to Asking For Help but in a more neutral way. If you have problems asking for help, then the “explaining to someone” method is the next best thing. It gets the job done without the perception that you asked for help.
- Do Something Else, Preferably Something Mundane: Sometimes just doing something that is easy to get done gives you the needed boost to breakthrough the saturation state. In this case, the more mundane, the better. Good examples are: expense reports, approving purchase orders, reading a report or doing your weekly status report.
- Focus on One Thing: Most saturation events happen when there is too much to do. You feel overwhelmed with the shear volume of open tasks and problems. Focusing on one and only one thing, will ensure that at least something gets done. Usually, there is one or two tasks or problems that are the most important. Focusing on getting them done, one at a time, allows for maximum mind share which is sometimes all that is needed.
Inspiration creates innovative ideas. Perspiration brings those ideas to life. Saturation just gets in the way. Being aware of the signs of saturation will reduce the frustrations involved in bring innovative products to market. Having a keen sense of what makes you saturate will make you a better innovator.
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