How Not to
Create Innovation
Capability in Your Firm

The four errors leaders make

The emergence of innovation as the new focus of the modern organisation has led to it’s perception as a critical set of processes and techniques. But this same perception has led to gross generalisations about how to create an organisation ready to innovate. Tony Golsby-Smith talks about the four typical errors leaders make.

Most leaders are trying to make their organisations more ‘innovative’ — and most people are finding this frustrating. Innovation isn’t just about technique and process; it is more fundamental than that. It involves a change in culture and in thinking. In a way it challenges the assumptions for control and certainty that have underpinned the modernist organization. Organisations were designed to operate at the delivery end of the thinking cycle, but innovation operates at the upstream creative end. That means organisations have built their processes and cultures around ‘What is?’ whereas innovation is built around ‘What if?’. You cannot just add on a new training program or a new innovation process to the old fabric of the organisation.

Most people don’t get this, and they underestimate the task that confronts them. Here are four typical mistakes that people make in trying to introduce innovation into their organisations:

Buzz and hype from the top

CEOs or leaders simply exhort the organisation to become innovative, and might go so far as to start an ‘Innovation Committee’ of some of the top people in the organisation. The rationale for this approach seems to be that all problems will yield to the high power of status — innovation included. They need to learn from the Ancient Greeks who were smart enough to characterise the creative arts as ‘Muses’ — very attractive ghostly ladies who unfortunately were elusive and disappeared just when you thought you could grab them. Creativity and its modern foster child of innovation won’t be bossed around, including by high powered executives and committees. The critical fallacy behind the ‘buzz and hype’ approach is short termism; everything must be a ‘quick win’ in the quarterly reporting culture and innovation should be no different.

Hire specialists

This approach is almost the opposite of the above approach. ‘We can’t do it ourselves so let’s just get specialists to do it for us’. The danger of this is that we create an ‘Innovation Department’ marooned in head office; the organisation does not change its culture or systems and so does not know how to listen to the innovation voice. Central departments don’t have a happy history in changing a corporate culture. In a way they are another cheap approach that assumes if you ‘throw money at the problem’ something must happen. Instead they tend to last for a while and then get disbanded when people become disillusioned with the lack of progress.

Hiring a consulting firm to do the innovation for you is a variation of this approach and while it is useful to kick start things, on its own it suffers from the same shortfalls as the specialist department; there is no cultural change and the organisation marches on to its own beat without really ever learning to listen to the voice of innovation.

Training in a vacuum

At first glance this approach seems to go further than the above two and in particular to address the issues of culture much better. Train lots of people in ‘innovation skills’ and give them some tools. And yes, this approach is more authentic and likely to bear fruit than the above two because it really does begin to engage people in the journey. But the eventual shortcoming is likely to be frustration. This is because we need to do more than just give people skills. People don’t just need skills to be effective; they work in systems and in cultures, and if these don’t also get changed to accommodate innovation, then skilled people will become frustrated as their efforts keep meeting organisational blockers. Much Six Sigma and TQM training befell this same fate. People get trained in ‘black belt’ systems with analytic tools but the organisation does not create the context for them to use those tools. Skills like these assume that we have projects to do and sponsors who care. Usually that is not the case, and so well meaning training programs create initial fanfare but then fail to bear fruit organisationally.

Pockets of activity without a strong core

This aberration is the most sophisticated of the four shortcomings. It takes a strong organisation to get moving seriously in the innovation space and only such an organisation will find itself confronting this problem. People will be trained and there will be enough organisational support to initiate good innovation projects. Some real benefits will start to occur. But in the final analysis, the innovation efforts are not linked strongly enough to the organisation’s planning and strategy systems. So the efforts at innovation are too low level and too disjointed. These pockets of excellence will be threatened in the long run unless the organisation creates a strong culture of innovation with a shared language and strong links to the strategic planning system. In fact strategy should be reconceptualised as a design activity if the organisation is to really mainstream innovation into the DNA of the organisation.

By Tony-Golbsy Smith
Illustrations by John Luckman

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