Nearly every organization I have worked with, either as an employee or as some form of consultant, wants to be known as “innovative.” Organizations want to produce innovative products or services, or they want to be on the leading edge of <insert area here>, or they want to be innovative places to work such that they draw the greatest talent to their doors.
So nearly every organization wants to be innovative, but truly, very few ever achieve innovation. Why is that? Why is it so difficult for an organization, of any size, to be “innovative?” After years of working with and for several organizations, I finally have seen the recurring patterns that thwart innovation. I believe I finally have found the answer. Are you ready?
Innovation isn’t comfortable. Innovation doesn’t follow the process. Innovation is chaotic.
That’s it. No need to read further. Okay, for those of you with time on your hands, a bit more explanation, by way of example.
When it’s time to hire in new senior level employees, organizations are often inclined to hire “outside-of-the-box” thinkers. These individuals are energetic, hard-working, and have an internal passion for the business, whatever it is, that no typical worker can understand. They tend to come into an organization with a bombastic flair and go forth breaking all the rules.
For the first few years, the typical workers who manage the processes tend to “chuck it up” to the short tenure of the innovative-driven hires. These innovators simply don’t know the processes. Why in no time at all, think the process workers, the innovators will conform and fill out the paperwork and wait in line just like the others.
As the process workers tire of the unprocessed innovators, the apple cart upsets. The process workers refuse to move forward unless the process is followed strictly. The innovators refused to move backward to processes that worked well for the last generation of customers, but that won’t work for the next generation of customers who too, are beginning to tire of the old product or service and looking for whatever is new and exciting. Internally, the process-driven are at odds with the innovation-driven, and someone must win.
Along comes executive management. What do they do? The most common reaction I have witnessed is that executive management continues to shout “innovation” while holding tightly to the reigns of process. What follows are closed-door meetings and sensitivity training and team-building exercises. And in my experience, it never works. The end result typically finds the highly-mobile innovator moving on to the next organization where the executive management there is also courting innovation (and the scenario often repeats itself). In addition, the departing innovator leaves behind legions of supporters who got excited and stuck out their necks in the name of innovation wondering what the repercussions will be. Will the process workers punish the innovator-supporters? Or will the process workers simply relish their victory and go back to dotting their “i’s” and crossing their “t’s” leaving the innovation-supporters to grieve the loss of their innovator? And how will executive management react? Will they again seek an innovator or will they find it more comfortable to put their heads down and just follow process?
The morale of this story? Executive management – it is up to you to turn the dream of innovation into a reality. You’re either for it or against it. In this case, there is no middle-ground. If you truly desire to be an innovative organization, beware. Innovation is uncomfortable, and by definition, it upsets current processes. In fact, sometimes, innovation turns processes upside-down. It creates chaos and if your organization is not set up to be comfortable supporting and managing chaos from the top down, innovation may not be your thing.
Not every organization needs to be an innovator. Arguably, most are not, yet non-innovative companies can still be profitable by exercising whatever the competitive advantage is that they maintain. Non-innovative companies can still be good places to work. It’s exciting to be an innovative organization, no doubt. They get all the press in the trade rags and their employees are often on the conference speaker dockets held in exotic places. But it’s more comfortable adopting innovation slowly and tweaking processes. So what’s it going to be – comfort or chaos? Pick one.