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Innovation = Conversation + Doing

“What should we be doing to be increase innovation?” It is a very common question from clients. It’s not unreasonable, since the chatter around innovation is that it is the magic bullet to success and growth. Innovation shares much of the same mystery as Dan Ariely’s quip about big data:

“Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

But the more time I spend time digging into the underlying issues, the more it is clear that the fundamental premises of the question are wrong.

The first false premise is that innovation is an activity in and of itself. It’s not. There are no teams of people who sit around abstractly innovating. Teams of people work on tangible things, ideally with a clear sense of purpose, even if they frequently don’t have an entirely clear sense of how to get there. Innovation work also involves a certain amount of fumbling around in the dark. The tangible outcomes of that work are the innovations.

Innovation is better understood as a noun, not a verb.

The second false premise is the idea that you have to do more to innovate. “Do more” is a general feature of management culture and leadership KPIs. Preferably doing more faster, more agile, more efficiently, with less money, but more technology. This usually results in a new program, a new department, a new strategy, a new technology platform, new press releases.

New can be great, but it’s usually not much use when it simply gets plastered onto the existing substrate of process and procedure, what Dan Hill describes as the Dark Matter of organisations. That can easily become innovation theatre.

The four horseman of the bureaucratic apocalypse — HR, Procurement, IT, and Facilities — can stymie innovation and transformation programs in very banal ways. I’ve witnessed teams who are not allowed to use the latest tools, not allowed to stick work up on the walls, can’t hire the right people in the right way, can’t book spaces with the right furniture… the list is long. The result is stasis.

Transformation and change is too often additive instead of biasing towards being subtractive. If leadership are to do anything, it should be to strip back almost all of the rules and procedures these departments put in place.

Doing less is often more difficult than doing more. It requires real focus and saying no to tempting possibilities. Many organisations reward the careers of those adding processes rather than simplifying them. While there are KPIs for efficiency savings through downsizing, downsizing isn’t simplification and sometimes makes things worse. It’s rare to see senior management KPIs for killing off programs. It’s often easier to get millions in funding for a new innovation hub than to find the courage and political will to strip back layers of organisational sediment and debt.

Reflective practice

There is a lot of complexity in organisations, not just because of organisational debt, but because humans are complex, irrational, and contradictory creatures. That’s what makes culture so rich and so difficult to deliberately create. Culture emerges from ecosystems. Tools like Fjord’s Vital Signs or The Ready’s OS Canvas help uncover the nuances of what is really going on in those ecosystems, but over the years I’ve been trying to whittle this down to a simple focus or mantra. I believe almost all of the issues that organisations face boil down to one question leadership and managers should ask:

“Are the right people able to have the right conversations with each other and enabled to work with each other in the right way?”

Organisations that struggle with innovation and transformation either don’t know the answer to this question or are unwilling to make the changes to enable it.

It is a useful one-liner because it gives rise to further questions. Who are the right people? What are the right conversations? What does it mean to enable them to work and what is the right way? Those are all very good questions to be asking, much better than, “Can you teach 300 of our staff design thinking?” If you enable the people who are affected by these questions to work out the answers and change the practices themselves, it will lead to real change.

This led me to a simplified formula I tweeted almost a year ago:

Innovation = conversation + doing.

Get rid of everything that gets in the way of those two things. It’s as simple as that. Post on this coming soon.

— Andy Polaine (@apolaine) July 9, 2018

That is, the conversations up front (loosely, design/strategic thinking) and then the conversations and reflection whilst doing (sense and respond) is what leads to innovative breakthroughs and improvement.

It behooves me at this point to explain what I mean by the word innovation, since it’s been so overused. I’m very much from the Steven Johnson camp that innovation is something new, that meets a sometimes unknown or unarticulated need, sparked by the collision of existing ideas and hunches. Usually these impact society in some way and they are not something that happens in a flash. Many people shortcut Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation to mean innovation in general, but that works for the scenarios I’m describing too.

So if “innovation = conversation + doing” doesn’t that contradict what I just argued about leadership doing less, not more? The doing less goes for leadership, since the ideal purpose of leadership is to set the purpose and then help the organisation get out of the way of hindering itself achieving it.

When it comes to creating something new, obviously people need to be doing something. It’s tempting in a world obsessed with speed to just go off sprinting and doing, but in what direction? That’s where conversation comes in.

Reflective practice, in the Donald Schön sense, is at the heart of designing and what is so often ignored when design thinking is discussed or taught. Designers do an awful lot of thinking whilst doing. Based on some kind of hypothesis (“a thing like this would help people do that”), they imagine a future “thing” and then start making it tangible in some way — sketches, prototypes, etc. Sometimes the doing is best separated from the planning and editing/reviewing (certainly something I learned about writing), but often there is a reflection on the making as you go along.

There is a balance to be struck. Too much conversation can be a sign of paralysis. Alex Jones (no, not that one), one of my colleagues at Fjord once said, “sometimes it’s quicker to build than to plan.” Ideas are platonic ideals, but once they are made tangible, there are frequently moments of realisation that some element that seemed such a great idea does not work in practice, or we’ve designed ourselves into a corner, or the three elements or features we thought were distinct can now be collapsed into one piece of elegant simplicity. We often talk about it in Fjord as “building to think”, and since we’re thinking, this isn’t the other extreme of too much doing, which can be a mindless cycle of deliver, deliver, deliver. It’s building with intention and reflection.

Reflecting practice requires craft skill and experience. You see it most obviously in physical crafts, such as carpentry, but also in activities requiring physical judgement or dexterity, such as flying a plane, making bread, or the Donald Schön example of tightrope walking. In carpentry, sometimes you’re following the grain, sometimes fighting the material. Sometimes you have to give in and sometimes bend it to your will. Knowing what to do when and carrying that experience into future situations is what makes a great craftsperson, baker or right-rope walker.

When thinking is disconnected from doing there are a thousand decisions that get made during the doing that can degrade the initial intent. This can happen when cross-functional teams don’t talk to each other and just sprint ahead. Conversation is, after all, the whole rationale of stand-ups and sprint retros. Good conversation is a game of tennis, batting ideas back and forth to discover their boundaries and shape. Poor conversation is simple reporting. There’s another word for that — a monologue.

For people to create new things effectively, they need to be able to talk to each other easily, openly and safely. Then they need to be able to make things they have been talking about as quickly and easily as possible. Even if the craft is difficult, the surrounding bureaucracy should not be making it more difficult. Critically, they need to be able to have conversations about what they are making while they are making. It’s an industrial factory legacy that the thinking is done by others and the making requires no more thought.

The informal conversations that happen between members of the team standing in front of an artefact — whether a wall of Post-Its during synthesis, a page full of sketches, or the design and code of a project — are the foundation of reflective practice:

– “Doing it like this is really difficult technically, can we do it differently?”
– “No, that’s an essential part to the experience. It was a key insight from the research.”
– “OK. How about doing it like this instead?”
– “That would work, but I’ll need to change these elements.”

And so it goes on. It’s a constant back and forth of action, reflection and discussion. I’d go so far as to say at least two thirds of the thinking in design is in the doing, not the up-front thinking.

Treat us like a start-up

If you examine the other common ask of, “We want to work like a start-up,” what does that really look like? Good start-ups generally have these attributes:

  • A clear purpose matched to an identified unmet need
  • A small group of people with little hierarchy and therefore a lot of individual autonomy
  • Very short communication paths as a result of being small (literally, a shout across the room)
  • The ability to make use of the latest tools and ways of working (shared Google docs, replacing e-mail with Slack, decent VC with Zoom, etc.)
  • The ability and autonomy to change direction, to pivot when they realise the thing they thought they should make should actually be something else
  • A limited runway of funding, which enforces focus
  • The ability to quickly purchase what they need and collaborate with who they want
  • A space they can use in whatever way works best for them

The right people can speak to each other and can work together in the right way.

You already know this

If you flip the “What must we do to be more innovative?” question around to, “Why aren’t we producing innovations spontaneously already?” most people already know the answers. They lack purpose and focus, their days are full of meetings, the organisational silos prevent them from communicating and working together, management KPIs are all wrong, processes and procedures slow them down, their tools and spaces are terrible.

Large organisations become microcosms, often leading to a myopia that getting through the next stage gate is the goal. But management and process are never the end goal. Making things is the goal. It’s only things in the world that are real. Numbers, targets, policies and procedures? It’s worth remembering they are all shared fictions, even though their effects can feel as permanent as gravity. But somebody made them up once. They can be reinvented.

We’ve reached an era of innovation fatigue, which is perhaps not a bad thing. The obsession with the new shiny thing became so normalised that it masked the real procrastination going on.

We all do it. Students do it when writing their theses, sitting with a pile of books on their desk and thinking, “I’ll get writing soon, but I just need one more reference book.” Musicians do it, obsessing over gear all the while not creating anything. Politicians commission white papers, consultants make PowerPoint decks, managers have more meetings and create action plans. Consumers stop using plastic straws while the planet burns. Designers get a few more sticky notes on the wall.

Transformation procrastination masked by innovation theatre can be deadly, since it gives the impression that something new is being done, when it isn’t. Leadership may well get their bonuses, share prices may rise, but one day they wake up and they’ve become Nokia.

Like an overgrown garden, there’s only one way to start and that’s to start clearing the weeds and briars. How much easier it is for new things to grow when they’re free to do so.

Thanks for reading. I’m Andy Polaine, a designer, coach, writer, podcaster and educator, and co-author of Service Design: From Insight to Implementation.

If you liked this, sign up for Doctor’s Note, my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society or subscribe to my podcast, Power of Ten.



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