This is the question that I receive most often from leaders. Where do I start with improving innovation in my organisation or department?
Often this goes along with a sigh and a statement like “once upon a time we were very innovative, but then we settled down”.
Often, the leaders that ask me about innovation somehow feel that their own lack of creativity and courage has led to the stagnation of innovation in their area of responsibility. Instead of teaching leaders some of my favourite innovation tricks, concepts or methods, I use this opportunity to rather try and shift their attention to creating the conditions for innovation.
Now innovation tricks, methods and concepts are in oversupply. Just go to the business section in any bookstore and you will find lots of recipe books. But these tricks and recipes are less important if one can induce a cultural shift towards exploration, responsibility and learn about what is possible.
So here is the advice that I regularly dish out.
As a leader, you do not have to announce that things will be different from here on. This just makes it harder for you and the team to learn about what is possible. Also, announcing a new vision and strategy puts the focus on your brilliant strategic skills. Rather avoid this.
Instead, start by modelling what you want your organisational culture to be. Again, no announcements.
Without much fuss, ask some of your teams or leaders
“if you could prioritise investment (time, money, people) in any area of this organisation, where would you want to explore?”.
Then agree on a budget with the people taking responsibility, a time frame, what resources they would need, and feedback mechanisms (how will we which ideas are working, and which are not working as desired). Encourage them to start soon, but to manage their usual responsibilities as well. Now your job is to help the rest of the organisation, like finance, admin, marketing, production or communications to adapt their support offerings and procedures to help this exploration effort. Make sure this effort receives all the support and resources that they need. Use the innovative efforts of one group to also be creative about other areas of the organisation. Your attention might be more valuable in getting the rest of the organisation to adapt and learn.
Dave Snowden always reminds us that in uncertain contexts, we should encourage the development of portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments. Single experiments are almost like bets in a casino, while portfolios help us to become more aware of constraints and our ability to influence systems. Challenge your team to come up with a small portfolio of experiments that can be tried to explore or better understand the area of exploration they have chosen. A safe-to-fail experiment is low-risk, meaning that even failure becomes valuable because it tells us about the system. Encourage the team to reflect regularly on the portfolio of experiments, and allow them to allocate resources from those that appear to be giving desirable results while dampening those experiments that appear to be going in the wrong direction. Perhaps you can also try to encourage people from other parts of your organisation to participate or closely follow the process, but do not let the exploration team get too big as this might slow it down or make learning through failure more socially risky. You can always wait a few days and then encourage another team in another area to also identify an area of exploration.
With this effort, you will encourage the practice of reflecting on the performance of the organisation and how different work areas support or enable innovation. Also, you will build the confidence of teams to set their own priorities in improving sub-systems, routines and arrangements, and to then manage their own innovation projects. By encouraging the development of portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments, you are accelerating the distributed learning in the organisation about what is possible and what is harder to do. At the same time, you are raising the awareness in the organisation of how efforts, energy and other patterns are interrelated.
Finally, you will also model that your role is to synthesize the support from other parts of the organisation. Your role is not to be the lead innovator or lead expert, but to be the conductor and chief innovation space creator.
Maybe this is the punch line. When organisations don’t innovate anymore, it is most likely because of too much management. Perhaps your past efforts of creating stability and structures have now become too rigid (or too successful – gasp!)
Instead of taking charge of innovation, encourage your people to explore in a structured way, to learn about what is possible in their areas of work. Your role is to encourage people to set priorities, and then let them learn about what is possible through portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments. In organisations that have become very set in its routines and systems, your job would most likely be to make sure the rest of the organisation can adapt where needed. But again, you don’t have to change the rules. Let the admin, finance, HR and operations people assess how the systems and procedures may be making innovation, novelty creation and improvement harder based on the focused innovation efforts of your teams. Rather than protect the systems, protect the innovators. You can manage the risk by ensuring that all experiments are safe-to-fail and low risk.
Go try this and let me know how it goes. Remember, the secret is to not announce this as something new. It is not a new vision. It is not a new strategy. Rather just model this behaviour of focused exploration, encouraging people to take responsibility for areas where they want to see better results. Make sure that all supporting functions are adapting and evaluating their own systems based on the learning from the innovation efforts. Then focus on making sure all the innovation efforts have the resources to implement their ideas, and the encourage innovators and support functions to learn from those efforts that don’t go so well.
You have just kickstarted your innovation culture.
After doing this for a while, any innovation recipe book will give you some tools, tricks and hacks that will work much better once more of your people are able to create, evaluate and learn about their role in your organisation’s innovation culture.
Image by tayphuong388 from Pixabay