Today I’d like to talk with you about innovation in organizations from objective and also from subjective angles. This article was heavily inspired by another article, titled “Breaking 3 Myths of Innovation“, written by Bob Rothman from Gap International. Usually our articles on TechAcute are either objective or the thoughts and experiences from single individuals. However in this post we will be picking up thoughts by Bob and add our own opinion. You could consider it a larger comment as part of my personal column and I strongly suggest you to read Bob’s article in full and following him on social networks, so you won’t miss out on future content from him.
When I read the article I primarily felt a consensus with the author. However at some points I felt like “Yes… but…”. I’m sure you know the feeling when someone picks up a subject you are often thinking about or dealing with professionally. For this article I want to use the format of appreciative inquiry and will use the phrasing “Yes… and…”, except when I drop in a critical comment. You will get it when that happens. No need for a highlight. So let’s skip to Bob’s three broken myths first.
1. Innovation happens only in certain departments or teams.
Bob says that there might be truth in that, but it also might be coincidental. If people feel like this is the case in their organization, especially when secret innovation isn’t communicated into other departments and levels of the organization as well. Innovation can happen everywhere and on any level. Innovation is not only the products visible to customers, partners and other third parties.
What is innovation? The word derives from a Latin expression and would roughly translate into “to make something new”. I would consider that to be applicable to both an improvement of what exists in a disruptive way, and the creation of something new that previously did not exist. Whether we are talking about things you can touch or methods, how you do something, does not matter for the sake of the definition.
Innovation lives in “you” and “us” not in “them”.
I would think that innovation is not relative to departments or teams but to single shining individuals. The essence of an innovator is a tinkering personality, who likes to invest time to improve something sustainably. That innovative type of person is however highly depending on his or her environment in most cases. Ideas somehow need to spark. Ideas need not only a demand but a momentum that triggers the plan to improve or create in that person’s mind.
Innovativity is a tacit and maybe even virtual trait. It is more influenced by culture than creativity would be. You could for instance put an innovative person into a department and hope his or her attitude would color the other people there as well. That could happen, but just how you learned in art class, a lot of black paints over white, but not the other way around. It could be that the other team members depreciate the innovative spirit and attitude and depreciates into a status-quo, or worse.
2. Only creative people are innovators
Bob says that anything can be an innovation as long as it’s a new approach to improve something and everybody can be an innovator as long as they create and not ignore their ideas. If the culture is driven as in “everybody can improve the company”, people will share their ideas and evolve themselves, the service, the products, and on later instance even the customers might evolve in a way.
Creativity is considered to be the activity of turning ideas into reality. For me creativity is the likelihood of creation. If a person creates, they are creative to me. You don’t need to create in order to be an innovator. Innovation can be separated into different stages, phases and even participants. Someone can give the spark to a new idea of a second person and a third person could manage the project of it becoming reality.
Innovation can and should be a team effort.
Often technology is the enemy to innovation. Limits and restriction make creative. An endless budget for technology will very likely have a negative effect on how innovative people are. You can find a tendency to pursue low-tech solutions or innovation with children and even some animals. That leads us to broken myth number three.
3. Technology enables or at least supports innovation
Bob says that you can have the best technology in the world but it doesn’t mean that it will add value just because it’s new or expensive. Technology, just like any other product or service, needs to be applied to solve problems or satisfy a demand. Technology on its own is neither innovative nor innovation.
What is technology? To me technology is to practically apply what we learned from science. Nowadays we have to face work culture problems that are a lot harder to address than technology problems. When you are trying to work culture in an organization, the timeline of your project are more likely going to be 5-10 years and not 1-2 years.
We are looking at total innovation stop and worse. In some scenarios innovation is frowned upon in the shapes of “again another tool” and “we always did it like this”. If you wanted to call out evolutionary terms, this would be called degenerative behavior. If Darwinism applies to the corporate world, this means such teams, and later the organization as whole, will “die” and become extinct. People who have ideas and construct them always prevail over those who don’t.
So how does that connect to what Bob said? In short words:
You can buy technology, but you can’t buy innovation.
You need to establish a work culture and environment that encourages innovation and even doubt. When people keep ideas to themselves, because they are afraid of rejection or afraid they will be asked to carry out the project all on their own, on top of their operational tasks. That’s the moment you know you lost to the dominating work culture. Asking questions is a good thing. The activity of requesting information is an indication of the interest to learn and improve in itself.
Even a simple “why” can go a long way. That means that you failed to communicate the reason and value of the task you are assigning them with. Without knowing that, they won’t be inspired, they can carry out the task 1-to-1 as per instruction and best effort but you bury the potential for innovation. Rather ask for a product and not focus on the “how”. They might find better ways or return with a better result, if they are aware of what you are really after.
You need to train innovation like a muscle. If you don’t, you degenerate into the state wherein you not only tolerate and accept sub-optimal situations for what they are, but consider them normal and good. This is not laziness, it is more like a virulent disinterest in quality and performance of work.
I don’t think of this article as a means to inject my opinion into someone else’s work. I really like the article by Bob and wanted to build upon it. He is not wrong and it’s not like I disagree with the points but I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject as well. I also invite you, dear reader, to share your very own thoughts on these bullets with us in the comment section below.
Further I want to recommend you to follow Bob Rothman on Twitter. He is a really nice guy, who shares very informative content. Maybe one day you will pick up one of this posts and prepare your own feedback article on that in the future. If that happens please feel invited to share your work with both Bob and myself. I would love to hear what you think.
Photo credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg