The Call for Innovation . . . Part 2

Sorry I’ve been away from blogging for a few weeks.  It has been a busy time and writing, unfortunately, has taken a back seat.  The upside to my absence is that the work I have been doing has provided an abundance of ideas and material to share, particularly with regard to innovation.  It continues to be a hot topic among companies waking from their economic slumber and looking for ways to reinvigorate their business.   

In my previous post, I left you with the thought that while innovation is a critical policy area for our national agenda, there was much that individual managers could do to foster innovation right now, at the micro level in our organizations.  Before I share those ideas, however, I think it is important to define it. 

Innovation, creativity, experimentation and invention are words that often are used interchangeably, but for our purposes—and those of scholars studying the subject—they are defined distinctly.  

  • Creativity is the ability to think and act in ways that are new and different. 
  • Experimentation is the process by which people become creative.
  • Invention is the process of creating something that did not exist before. 
  • Innovation is the process of thinking creatively about something that already exists. 

Innovation is about applying creativity for the purpose of improvement.  It may refer to an incremental change, or it may refer to a radical or transformational change.  In business, innovation also implies that the change has increased value.  It’s not change for change’s sake.  It’s purposeful change. 

Based upon these definitions, two things must be present for innovation to occur:  creativity and experimentation.  They are the seeds of innovation.  As a result, to foster an environment that generates innovation, a manager has to: 

  • Allow the new and different,
  • Allow experimentation and failure.

Unfortunately, most organizations, especially those defined by command and control cultures, don’t like the new and different.  It represents risk.  And they definitely don’t like failure. 

These organizations also are defined by a right-sized, Ready-Fire-Aim mentality where speed is valued over effectiveness.  Action is rewarded, thought of as practical and efficient, and the mantra of many corporate leaders is, “It’s better to keep pushing forward than to get caught up in analysis paralysis.”  

For these organizations, innovation is about applying the latest “best practice” whether or not it makes sense.  “It must be right if others are doing it.”  These organizations are marked by multiple change initiatives happening simultaneously:  technologies du jour; Six Sigma; BPM; restructuring; online leadership training; and an abundance of HR tools.  Before a new project is completed another appears.  There is little focus, little consistency and little follow through. 

Solution.  Solution.  Solution. 

Whenever I encounter one of these organizations—and I do all too often—I can’t help but think of one of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein:  “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.”  Most organizations spend 60 minutes of their time finding solutions to problems that just don’t matter. 

So, in addition to creativity and experimentation, a culture that encourages innovation also must be skilled at surfacing, identifying and prioritizing challenges.  It requires listening.  It requires space. 

You can’t innovate if you are always in Fire-Fire-Fire mode (double entendre intended!).  

“The greatest scientists are artists as well,” said Einstein, who in addition to being one of the greatest physicists of all time was also an exceptional pianist and violinst.  For Einstein, insight did not come from logic or mathematics.  It came, as it does for artists, from intuition and inspiration.   

He once told a friend, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.” Elaborating, he added, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge.”    

It’s curious, isn’t it, that school performance has declined at the same time as academic intensity, homework and testing have increased, and at the same time the arts have been dropped from school programs. 

Google gets this.  They created 20 percent time to enable engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily part of their job descriptions.  They can use the time to develop something new, or fix something that’s broken.  

Best Buy gets this, too.  An employee-led movement toward results-only metrics has transformed their culture.  The nation’s leading electronics retailer has embarked on a radical–if risky–experiment to transform a culture once known for killer hours and herd-riding bosses. The endeavor, called ROWE, for “results-only work environment,” seeks to demolish decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity. The goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours. 

What can managers do to foster innovation? 

Allow the new and different.  Let employees experiment.  Create time, space and autonomy to listen, learn and think.  

Innovative companies, innovative schools, innovative lives are not about more work.  They about more fun.

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