Much of innovation is mundane

I love facilitating thinking and reflection session with teams. However, there is one kind of request that I often decline, and that is a request to facilitate an annual innovation strategy rethink. I get many such requests towards the end of the year as organisations start thinking of the coming year and their “agenda” for innovation.

I don’t believe that it is possible to have a meaningful strategy meeting of minds that lasts one or two days, while the rest of the year everyone is busy scurrying about in their own trenches chasing deadlines, feeling squeezed and under pressure. You cannot make up for all the miscommunication, lack of communication and poorly moderated meetings just by calling everyone together for a day or two. Innovation is what happens on normal days, not in an extraordinary workshop.

I understand that people want creative innovation meetings and workshops. I love facilitating those. They feel their team deserve something that is fun, creative and mind blowing. That’s how more meetings should be in any case. Yet in my experience, a large part of innovation is rather mundane. In great organisations mundane innovations are carried out daily by people who are equipped and encouraged to reflect, dig deeper, re-think and make adjustments to issues that they feel matter in their work, even if their improvements or changes do not lead to new products, revenue streams or new markets.

I can think of at least two variations of mundane innovations.

The first variation consists of innovations in areas that appear to be mundane. These innovations are small changes in areas where we are so used to cumbersome processes or sub-optimal arrangements that we no longer even notice them. Important improvements can be made simply by tackling mind-numbingly dull areas in administration, bureaucracy, documentation or client interfaces. Finding ways to make backroom operations work better in support of frontline staff can free resources and mental bandwidth. Figuring out how something can be redesigned or reconceptualised with the benefit of hindsight can improve things going forward, even this cannot be quantified directly in profits or savings.

The second variation relates to innovations where the process itself feels mundane. This is where people have to sweat the details and stick with it until the task is done. Measure, adapt, retry, go back to the start. Repeat. Or spend time arguing or fleshing out two or three possible alternatives to enable better decision making, even if it feels like there are no real alternatives.

How leadership deals with the mundane everyday tasks of innovation is ultimately what makes one organisation healthier than another. Allocating resources to address the boring details outsiders don’t even see is often what makes organisations resilient and able to continuously adapt. It is the ability to set aside time, space and resources to enable people to dive deep into details, problems or ideas. In organisations that are able to continuously pay attention to the details it is much easier for more ambitious product, process or business model innovations to be implemented, as people throughout the organisation understand the discipline and process of innovation because they are encouraged to innovate often.

How are those seemingly mundane innovations enabled or encouraged?

  • Management must make some tools available, such as whiteboards, flipcharts, good coffee and snacks, spreadsheets and marker pens. Perhaps software and a facilitator could also be provided.
  • Management must create space. It may even be necessary to hold meetings without agendas and chairpersons, do explorations without reports or experiments without written documentation, or maybe a period with no electronic communications could be created so that people can dive deep into topics without having to manage or be managed. I cannot facilitate problem solving, sense making or innovation meetings in a boardroom consisting of a table and four walls. Perhaps spaces with glass walls, comfortable chairs and furniture that can be re-arranged would be more suitable.
  • Management must acknowledge, encourage and celebrate small improvements. If the intent of the organisational unit is clear, and the relationship to other functions in the organisation is understood, then people will be able to figure out where to optimise, where to re-think and where to let go. People should be encouraged to work together in small groups on topics, issues, opportunities or problems that draw their attention or that seem important in their context. Opportunities for organisations to make small changes behind the scenes are like antibodies attacking an invader in an organism.

Much of innovation seems mundane because we so often associate innovation with breakthrough products, smoothly integrated systems and creative teams that seem to require no management or direction. But all of these are made possible by allowing people to get on with attending to the details, to sink their teeth into things that matter, which might appear senseless to management.