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Persistence: Repetition Through Learning

True innovation comes from doing something well, consistently. Consistency only comes from persistence. While not as easy to package, sell, and tell compelling stories about, there is much potential in persistence.

Before we get to persistence — let’s first talk about its close (and much more popular) cousin: grit. Grit is what helps people persevere in spite of challenges, not because of them. The qualities of grit are courage, resilience, conscientiousness, passion, and perseverance.

Angela Duckworth’s research on grit has received a lot of attention. Her book is a best-seller and her TED Talk has been watched millions of times. One reason is that grit taps into a heroic story that individuals can embrace.

Grit fits well into the Hero’s Journey where someone works hard, digs deep, and succeeds against the odds pulled through because of their own effort, smarts and determination. It’s a great story and there’s much evidence to show that if we can nurture grit in ourselves and others, we can do more in the face of a challenge than without it.

Perseverance and Persistence

While the concept of grit does include perseverance, the language and framing are largely in relation to the other qualities of grit: you need to show grit often and continue to do so in the face of challenges.

That brings us to persistence. Persistence is defined as:

“the act of persisting or persevering; continuing or repeating behaviour”

Persistence is different from grit because of the emphasis on the second part of this definition: continuing and repeating behaviour.

This is why it does not get the same attention and is often overlooked. Trying over and again to do something is not all that interesting. It’s actually quite dull. But while not as glamorous as grit, persistence is probably more important to innovation than almost anything.

Great innovators — individuals, laboratories, companies, and scientists — are so because of their support for persistence of effort above all. Whether it is in the face of recognizable difficulties or simply the need or desire to do something different, better, more efficient, or accessible — consistency and repeated behaviour will achieve this.

Innovation is about long-stretches of grey — not black and white dramatic moments. Those moments make for great TED talks, but most innovation is about showing up day after day in the shop, in the lab, out on the streets, or in the classroom applying what we know, creating, evaluating, and learning. The best at their craft do the work: day in, day out. They persist.

From Pivots to Practice

Innovators are praised for their ability to fail fast, pivot, be agile and adaptive, but rarely do we emphasize the persistence of effort over time. This is not just based on a project but as part of the enterprise of business.

Persistence is as much a quality of great innovation as an outcome marker.

If you’re able to show that you can be persistent in your effort as an innovator — of course, learning as you go and just blindly doing things by rote — you will be far more successful than one who prizes the ‘new’.

Grit doesn’t account for this.

Regular innovation only comes from persistence or what Seth Godin calls The Practice.

Measuring the practice — the amount of activity, persistence, and consistency of effort — is what any organization should be evaluated against. It fits with what we know about design thinking, performance and innovation: the more ideas you generate, the more prototypes you create, and the more attempts you make the more likely you are to have better ideas, more successful products, and create transformation.

Persistence, By Design

The elusive, but prized ‘culture of innovation’ that most organizations who value innovation seek to create is only done so through a commitment to persistence. It’s not glamorous, but it’s what gets the job done.

This is done by design and by using the right metrics of success to point out what is being done, how often (when it is done), and to what effect. For those that adhere to the adage that what matters is measured then setting up — by design — metrics to capture what is done and the persistence of creative, administrative, and implementation work, developing evaluative means to assess persistence is a matter of organizational design.

There are many metrics and methods that can help capture the effort of your team in developing that culture of innovation. These can be used to complement questions we might ask about design thinking and its products.

Here are a few:

  • Number of attempts
  • Number of ideas generated / ideation sessions engaged in
  • Number of concepts proposed and prototypes developed
  • Background research gathered (e.g., artifacts)**
  • Consistently of application (i.e., ongoing use of a process and fidelity)
  • Number of solicitations for feedback from internal and external sources
  • Integrations within existing processes and tools
  • Materials used
  • Evaluation designs created for products or services
  • Evaluations implemented
  • Number of products launched outside of the organization
  • Number of new innovations generated (may be products, processes, or policy improvements)
  • Persistence of effort (e.g., continuity of activity, sequencing, and time-spent)

** note that research can be a trap. It’s easy to get stuck in over-researching something. While important as a product, it’s only useful if the research converts to real process or product efforts.

Designing our workflows and organizations to support persistent activity and moving away from measures that emphasize the new, create or amplify challenges, or focus away from individuals alone to learning systems — real cultures of innovation — is what will yield the results you’re looking for. These aren’t glamorous, but then that’s not what innovation is about. It’s about what we produce and what impact it has on the world.

And changing our world requires persistence.

If you need help with this and want to build an evidence-supported, design-driven process for innovating, consistently, and sustainably — reach out and contact me at Cense Ltd. This is what we do.

Image credit: Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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