The Innovation Illusion
Companies today wear the term “innovative” like a badge of honour. From Silicon Valley to the Silicon roundabout, organisations ranging from banks to boutique hotels proclaim themselves to embrace innovation both inwardly and outwardly.
A worthy claim, after all, innovation is about the new and the different, and there’s gold in them there hills.
But when you go into some of these organisations and see how they go about “innovating”, they’re heavy with admin, loaded with meetings and rife with the drive towards certainty.
Innovation is often just an illusion.
Admin gets slathered on top of existing processes to ripple data upwards and cover cracks in those processes, and people end up spending more time supporting process than the process supports them.
Meetings get slapped into diaries as a response to uncertainty or politics, sometimes pulling in more and more people and often leading to rework, repetition or restraint.
And the good and appropriate responsibility to look after the bottom line can become conflated with achieving certainty in outcomes. With a budget of x, project y must achieve profit z, and all efforts are put to ensuring that outcome. Trouble is, that drive towards certainty either sees people erring on the side of caution, or taking short-cuts that they believe will get them there quicker.
Innovation versus certainty
We humans have a hardwired urge to control our environment and be certain of our safety. It’s an M.O. that lays down the principles minimise danger and maximise reward as our prime directives, where danger is anything risky and reward is anything that ensures our safety.
That M.O. is the death of innovation, and not calling it out is where innovation becomes nothing more than a myth.
Have all the brainstorms, thought-showers, incubators or project dropzones you want. The elephant in the room will continue to stomp on ideas and innovation like a sweaty wrestler on a soufflé.
For real innovation, 3 things need to happen:
1. Speak expectations
The things you expect of yourself, the stuff you expect from other people, and (here’s where it gets really crazy) the things you think others expect of you all spiral around in your head and inform what you do and how you do it. I expect my day to go smoothly. I expect Larry to be a pain in the arse in that meeting. I expect my boss will want me to have an answer for this already.
Often conflicting, these expectations drive people to second-guess what they need to do (and how), and when that happens it’s normal to take the route that a. puts them in the best light, or b. pleases the most people.
Unspoken expectations shortcut innovation, but they don’t survive in the spotlight. So talk about them. Talk about what is and isn’t expected. Talk about how it’s okay to challenge assumptions. Talk about how great work can’t happen if you’re simply delivering in line with expectation.
2. Encourage vulnerability
Picture it. You go into the meeting with your best idea and a spring in your step, thinking that you’ve come up with a brilliant solution to a thorny problem. But then you get you laughed out of the room. Your idea doesn’t work. It’s crazy like a box of frogs. How could you have presented something that is clearly nonsense?
The thought that you’re not good enough or that everyone will find out that you’re not up to the job after all… Terrifying…
So it’s no surprise that the biggest killer of innovation is the fear of getting laughed out of the room. It makes ideas smaller or safer because those are unlikely to blow up in your face. It makes you tread a safer, known road rather than stumbling through a potential minefield in the dark. And it even makes you avoid situations where you risk “getting found out” altogether.
A truly innovative company is one that makes it clear that judgement, shame and blame has no place. It’s one that encourages vulnerability — taking off the safety harness and going out on a limb in the service of great work.
3. Nurture confidence
Picture a workforce that always has to double-check decisions with management. Imagine a team that doesn’t have the courage of their convictions. Or how about an employee who isn’t confident in their ability to contribute something worthy.
There can’t be much innovation when individuals don’t feel confident enough to go into the unknown and see what’s there, and it’s funny how companies conduct 360 degree reviews and send people on presentation skills courses, but rarely, if ever, look at nurturing an employee’s confidence in service of great work.
Why not? Probably because it seems nebulous, or out of scope, or just beyond reach.
Confidence is the ability to trust your behaviour with implicit trust in that behaviour. It’s the partner to vulnerability and the mother of acceptance.
It’s not about investing self-worth in a specific outcome, it’s accepting that you’re enough, right now, no conditions, and that you have nothing to prove. It’s bottom-up (connecting people strongly to who they are and how they are when they’re at their best) and top-down (productively dealing with stuff like second-guessing, self-doubt and people-pleasing that get in the way of confidence). It’s equipping people with the ability to make decisions and trust themselves in the service of great work.
To bring these 3 elements to life, there’s a certain amount of “hands off” that’s needed. Oversight, reviews and check-ins are all well and good, unless those things focus solely on certain outcomes.
It’s tempting to build processes to make innovation happen, but innovation can’t be forced any more than a bowl of spaghetti can be forced to speak Italian. Process needs to enable and support great work and innovation. It should work for the teams, not have the teams working for it.
And this “allowing” of innovation is no small feat in itself. It requires trust. A steady nerve. Faith, even.
Things can get messy, uncomfortable and difficult, so for sure, it’s the open, brave and hopeful who are the true innovators.