Stop doing innovation projects. Start being innovative.

When startups, companies or governments finally take that first step of actually doing something new, one way to do it, is to start with a pilot project. In many cases, this might be a good place to start. Design Thinking, Agile and Lean all build on the foundation of iteration. Try something, evaluate it, refine it, try again.

Where many organizations go wrong is innovating only at the project level. They seldom commit through-and-through. Doing a pilot alone won’t solve the problem.

There’s a big difference between “doing something new” and “changing a habit”: One is easy and fun, the other takes time and dedication. Signing up for a gym membership and shopping for new sneakers feels great. Actually going to the gym and working out on a rainy Wednesday is something completely different.

When it comes to innovation, most companies lack experience. And why wouldn’t they? Unless you spend most of your time inventing and testing new tools, leading change processes and strategically questioning your company, you won’t become an expert. But somehow we convince ourselves that it can’t be that hard.

Maybe that is why many companies take on the challenge of innovating as most of us take on our new years resolutions. They start an innovation lab/hub, create an internal program or hire/promote someone to “take care of the innovation”. That usually works well for a while, until it becomes a burden and the old habits return.

Just because you can see the mountain on the horizon, doesn’t mean you would know how to climb it.

If you want change, you must change yourself first. Change your bad habits step by step. Instead of starting by creating a new Innovation Lab, create an incentive inside your existing framework that rewards fresh ideas. Take a lesson from modern fitness trackers: Collect data and make it visible when you deliver on your promise or slack off. Reward initiative and dedication. Consider evaluating every project using an additional “innovation” factor next to the profit column. What could we have done to make this project even better / more innovative? Why didn’t we? How can we make sure to use this next time? Work with iteration, but work on your daily business.

Give innovation space to grow and it will.


This article was written with input and support from Katharina Ludwig.