“No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess”
- Isaac Newton
The term ‘innovation’ has reached a glorified position in the 21st century. Every organization as far as the eye can see claims to have some stake in it, citing the same reasoning as any other; that it’s ‘deemed necessary for strategic growth and staying ahead of the competition’. Corporate executives recognize that innovation is important, as a 2017 McKinsey report found that 84% of executives believe innovation is key to achieving their growth objectives. But that same report revealed that only 6% are actually satisfied with their efforts. That’s a pretty big mismatch. Why you may ask?
Well, let’s explore that.
The first hurdle is defining what innovation actually is. Many people claim to be innovators, but usually have their own explanation as to what that means to them. So, who’s right and who’s wrong?
The answer is, they’re all right!
Put simply, innovation is discovery, ideation, exploration, experimentation, creativeness, development, investigation, evolution, etc, etc, etc. What I’m trying to say is that innovation is in everything and an innovator is anyone who perceives themselves as making advancements in their unique space. Take for example when you hear a new slang term and think “that’s quite useful, I think I’ll use that”, that’s innovation. Someone, somewhere invented that term and spread the accepted usage of it, that person was an innovator.
So, when executives define innovation, they need to consider it in the context of their organization’s unique DNA, e.g. market position, product/ service offering, geography, target audience, etc. However, they should also consider the scale of innovation they desire, which is more often than not defined by competitor pressure, consumer need and risk appetite. Remember, innovation can be as intricate and complex as designing a new AI-led computer system, or as simple as changing the color of ketchup from red to green, it depends on what end result you desire.
But why, if I’ve just so easily explained the context of innovation, is it so hard to implement? It’s true that most people understand the importance of innovation, it’s actually ingrained in our DNA; as a survival instinct humans are deeply curious, seeking to learn and grow in order to thrive. After all evolution has proven that those who don’t evolve, die out; but very few know exactly what they need to address, when they need to address it and how to do it. For example, you could gather fresh, creative insights straight from your consumers, but it would mean nothing to you if you weren’t sure which ideas to support and scale.
Unfortunately for humans, despite being a naturally curious species we’re also a very lazy one. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman points out “laziness is built deep into our nature”; after all, one of the main reasons we seek to innovate in the first place is to find shortcuts that make our busy lives a little bit easier.
But innovation isn’t easy. It requires deep, alternative thinking, that ‘outside of the box’ type thinking that’s actually quite cognitively demanding. In fact, finding those really ‘disruptive’ ideas can be associated (effort-wise) with trying to find a needle in a haystack, and how many of you can honestly say you’d give that a go? Most of the time our minds act on autopilot, because it’s easy. But autopilot defaults thinking to our immediate knowledge and gives us the tendency to rationalize information within the context of that knowledge and our beliefs; in other words, “we think we know best” and we defend that reasoning.
Our habits aren’t entirely at fault though, society and our upbringing are part to blame. Everyone is born with the power to re-think and innovate, but by never being taught how to access it, it becomes impossible to reach.
In his famous TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity” Sir Ken Robinson reminds us that our education system was built for the industrial age. An age that was founded on the core principals of conformity, compliance, linear processes and division of labour. This type of thinking is great if you’re trying to iron our human errors from a manufacturing line but hinders creativity by sucking out any individualism.
And we don’t stop there. This kind of thinking permeates through to our jobs as well. Most organizations are built on predictable, reliable, standardized results, we’re taught that good performance is equal to avoiding failure. “Don’t stray too far from the path, you might make a mistake and that could be costly”. So, rather than give innovation a really good go, which is inherently risky, rather than be a little adventurous, which could be costly, organizations prefer to resist until absolutely necessary. They focus on ‘quick-wins’, maximizing short-term return and branding it as ‘innovation’ but really, they aren’t doing much. This kind of thinking not only causes you to miss out on opportunities for advancement but leaves you vulnerable to competitors that did decide to give it a go.
Failure is an unavoidable part of innovation, yet it goes against everything we believe and everything we’ve been taught, which makes it difficult to rationalise. In order to overcome these barriers, we need to re-define mistakes as ‘learning opportunities’. We need to be open-minded, accepting and understand that failure is a natural part of learning. Without recalibrating, we’ll keep on trying to push forward whilst simultaneously holding ourselves back.
Albert Einstein is widely credited with having said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”.
If executives believe they can reach satisfaction with their innovation efforts through more of the same, isn’t that madness?
Break the cycle, encourage individualism and accept that innovation is all about uncertainty.