When it comes down to it, innovation is a creative act, says Chris Bull. He explains why it isn’t something you can process into existence and suggests how to set your compass for a more innovative future
It is impossible to log on to LinkedIn these days without being promised solutions, toolkits or training courses.
This smorgasbord of options promises to help us rapidly identify and develop game changing new products, services or ways of working, to transform our business models and leave our competitors flailing behind us.
It is easy to see why. Over the last decade or more, we have seen relentless changes brought about by the digital revolution. Companies that have changed their business models entirely have often become extremely successful, whilst the laggards were frequently not doing as well. “Innovate or die” is the mantra of the fourth industrial revolution.
Yet despite this self-evident truth, and the wild claims of those peddling ‘quick fix’ innovation solutions, it would seem that many established companies have focused more on digitising their existing products, services and processes, rather than truly transforming their business models. This raises the obvious question – if entities understand the basic need to innovate, why do they find it so hard to do?
There are numerous, complex and inter-related reasons why. Some of the most common ones include:
1. The stigma of failure
Despite the mantra of “fail fast” being popular within Agile methodology, perceived failure brings real penalties for senior leaders in terms of organisational politics, career progression and reputational damage.
Failed experiments can be classed as wasted money rather than a good investment to test a theory. Risks tend to be avoided rather than managed, and a cautious approach becomes default. New ideas are therefore either not invested in, or – if they are – the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ kicks in, keeping “zombie ideas” alive for too long for fear of the risk of shutting down an idea that has received funding and support until that time.
2. Control versus chaos
The unpredictable nature of creativity can often sit at odds with process-driven, highly structured ways of working inherent in well established, highly regulated organisations. In this world, the costs of innovation are always easier to measure than their potential future benefits. This is compounded by the highly complex and bureaucratic approach to funding, commercial tenders and project delivery that often exist in the public sector or large corporates.
3. Lack of organisational ownership
All too often, everyone agrees that innovation is a good idea in theory, but doesn’t think it is their job to deliver it. Too few have the time, or are rewarded, for thinking of new approaches, and no one is accountable for fostering transformative new ideas. “Not invented here” syndrome takes hold, often making people suspicious of new ideas that are generated elsewhere. Senior leaders trumpet their own pet projects rather than ideas from elsewhere that have, objectively, much more chance of creating new value for their organisation.
4. Tokenism prevails
In order to show that something is being done about innovation, isolated, discrete efforts are made to generate new ideas. They are often given much air time and flashy publicity, but without the underpinning culture needed for these ideas to flourish, they can end up being “innovation theatre”, provided to make everyone feel better that the issue of innovation is at least being addressed.
Eating strategy for breakfast
So how do you make the break to sustained, successful innovation? It isn’t easy and there isn’t a quick fix solution (despite what the LinkedIn contributors may promise). Systems and processes are good places to start, as they are essential to getting anything done, and over time become core enablers of deeper cultural change. Innovation processes will vary, but ultimately come down to having a way of generating, capturing and assessing new ideas, trialling some to test assumptions and validate early benefits, and bringing the best into ‘business as usual’.
Ultimately, though, innovation is a creative act. It isn’t something you can process into existence. It is disorderly, based on ideas, experiments, failures and iterations. As such, getting everyone in your organisation bought into the need for innovation, and exhibiting a set of behaviours and mind-sets that are needed to spark and develop new ideas, is critical. These include having a passionate belief in the need for, and possibility of, real change, and a willingness to accept you may be wrong and others might just have the right answers.
Once these building blocks are in place, you may start to see the seeds of innovation across your organisation. And all without paying for that expensive LinkedIn course…
About the author
Chris Bull is a Business Consultant with BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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