Anyone can innovate! Take these classes! Take our sessions! Read my book! Buy my program! Come to our webinar! Try these five steps! Do this all and create an innovation culture and your own innovation army!
Sound great. It’s not so simple. You need a few other things first and always.
The Context – Humanity Itself
People are people and lots of people, well, are crowds with their own ideas and natural tendencies towards cliques, politicking and self-interest.
Throw in that the older and larger an organization is, the more globally far flung it is and your logistical and deeply ingrained corporate cultural challenges likely grow exponentially. Arie De Guess addresses cultural formation and change difficulty very well in his book, The Living Company. Cultures are often set seemingly in stone soon after 20-40 employees and the first few years of existence. It’s then typically very hard, whether it’s innovation or anything else, to easily change. In other areas, Clayton Christensen has taught us the same. This again varies by the degree of desired change and the timeline.
The Challenge – Leadership
To address leadership at the firm or organization on a very personal level and then insure that if this new endeavor for change is to succeed, it’s all in or you’re out. Often it only takes one person, often senior, to be against something to doom it to failure. The tools above are great, in whatever form works for you and yours, but the results will be few and far between without a powerful, persistent personal commitment from the top. Remember – a tool or a process is just that. It’s not in and of itself leadership, inspiration, excitement or any other human trait. Those things are no different than a computer, an instrument, a hammer, a drill or a lever. Leadership as well – how many great sports teams on paper with awful leadership imploded – (for me it’s the 2014 Red Sox). Have or hire the wrong CEO, you’re toast. Look at GE’s stock the last decade. They tried lots of innovation training and tools.
The Need: Experienced Guidance
While leadership can realize the need for change, it’s often hard to change alone. I personally do not recommend it. I also don’t recommend spending 100s of thousands to millions either! External advice and direction, from consultants, key board members, trainers, experts and the like can be of great assistance. Even some self-education with great books, talks, papers, seminars, etc… Still, the populace can be pretty damn smart – if they perceive that without those helpers, the new arrangement will again just go back to the familiar, the change may not take root enough to succeed.
The Reality: Not Everyone Will, Can or Should Be Innovators
It’s my contention that innovation is like any other discipline, whether an academic one, a sport, music, art, etc… You can teach all of them, but only those that have a real aptitude will take it in and then have an improved chance at success.
Accordingly, to think one can change an organization entirely by training or using a multi-step process or tools alone is unlikely. In a university or other optional endeavors, one chooses to pursue learning, indicating at least an interest if not a likely propensity to succeed at it. At a company, you have employees who have chosen to work in their disciplines at that firm in their roles for the most part. To then ask them to learn innovation when they may not want to, may not have a preference to and or may not be predisposed to have an aptitude for it is a major challenge that may have significant diminishing returns.
This is why I have always recommended and for my own teams finding where innovation is needed, to what degree (incremental versus breakthrough, tactical versus strategic) and then uncovering those already there who can be taught or improved or may be already great and then hiring same to augment if and when necessary. The uncovered should thrive all else being equal. The others you simply cannot force nor should you. It’s no different than I cannot make someone play a virtuoso violin or hit home runs like Jose Bautista just by taking a class or following a multi-step process. Yes, there are varying degrees, but at any degree forcing will likely produce pushback, a negative attitude and that can be a poison.
The Tools: Communication and Experiential Conduits
There are literally hundreds of tools if not more out there as well as varying innovation types and approaches. Within each, when looking to now teach, train or provide experiential learning, one should choose what’s appropriate not for what the goals of the function or job or group may be but also what is right for the endemic culture and people. Everyone is unique and therefore when grouped, those groups will behave uniquely. Throw in the context – the situation, the scenario, the conditions, the variables – and again the behavior will be affected. The learning process may then be the biggest challenge after the leadership one. Pick the wrong approach to teaching and that itself may turn people off.
An Idea: Start with Empathy
When we engage a major client or take the helm at a company or even group, my colleagues and I often find that building empathy jump starts the desire to innovate and change. Building empathy for all the other roles and functions, both within the firm and within the supply chain – from customers and their customers to suppliers and their suppliers to the regulators and so on builds an awareness of everyone’s needs and challenges, both daily and strategic and its that context that often gets people and groups thinking differently. That new thinking is often overwhelming as is the empathy creating a sense of need for help and thus can often make the populace far more receptive to not simply getting training and help but also to the belief that the change has real purpose and that they as individuals can make a difference.
Sadly, many times absent empathy, it take a corporate crisis to engender a leadership change or change of mind along with the staff. For the troubled firm, the need for outside assistance is likely the greatest. Realize that hiring an outside CEO and other leadership and staff is indeed getting outside assistance. They will be perceived as outsiders for some time.
Our Conclusion – Lead, Build Empathy, Teach, Uncover and Build
While one starts with leadership and empathy, those two must be continuous – ingrained in the firm forever. Forgetting innovation for a moment, when people constantly experience each other’s circumstances and challenges, that in and of itself will yield a cultural change and it is usually a positive one. The exposure yields new thinking and then likely better and new ideas and maybe, just maybe, some great and even breakthrough innovation. Role and department rotations, multidisciplinary and multi-departmental teams, fieldwork with suppliers and customers and their customers – there are lots of tools.
With strong, exemplary leadership coupled with persistent empathy, now teaching, training and processes will have context and place. Buy in is far more likely. Cultural change can then have a shot and it taking root is far more likely. Still, do not expect miracles – miss any one of those three big elements and there will likely be far less success, especially as the organization gets ever larger in scope and scale.
A Last Note…
Lastly – none of this stops you, as an individual and within your own groups and teams from trying this all on your own. Many years ago, on the advice of my older peers at Loctite, an innovation powerhouse, I took my first job and when I had my first group did all three and had great success. I quickly realized why – it was not because I was smart – it was because all those other people I had on the team were each in their own unique way from lifetimes of highly varied experiences where I was young and had none.