Stop Forcing Innovation, It Doesn’t Work

Jumpstart Innovation

Innovators are not born, they are made. Here’s how to make that happen.

Disruptive, transformative, revolutionary, game-changing… in the world of business, innovation has many synonymous buzzwords that are thrown about in conversation and on paper. Innovation turns the wheels of the modern tech economy, and everyone wants to buy in.

Long seen as the realm of startups, corporates and governments alike are recognizing the productivity benefits of innovation­ – it increases business profitability and generates economic value.

But, much like the proverbial goose and her golden eggs, it’s easy to get impatient with the process of innovating. At its core, innovation is about creative problem-solving. And creativity, as many a creative individual will say, cannot be forced.

It’s complicated, kind of

In The Little Black Book of Innovation, author Scott D. Anthony notes that innovation is a process of “discovering an opportunity, blueprinting an idea to seize that opportunity, and implementing that idea to achieve results.”

A lot of the innovation process thus has to do with thinking and doing, or at least, trying to do. One is difficult to quantify and evaluate (how much thinking is enough thinking?) while the other has a high failure rate. So, while a lot of companies would like to think they have a culture that’s conducive to these two activities, in a realistic business environment, potential innovators can be discouraged.

A second reason why innovation slips through the cracks, often without drawing attention, is because it relates to many seemingly unrelated factors, as one Harvard Business Review article points out. Company culture is an obvious one, but these factors can also be strategic, political, or financial in nature.

Based on survey results, the article notes that influences such as turf wars, a lack of budget and recruitment policies can all impose barriers on the path to innovation. In fact, even more mute factors such as social cues or physical environments can be a contributing factor. Remote working, for instance, has been found to have both positive and detractive effects on one’s creative abilities.

Another survey found that off all the barriers to innovation, time was the most significant. The time constraint mainly arises out of a tug-o-war between the needs of the established business and those of the business opportunity of innovation, taking a toll on how much can be achieved in a day.

Unsurprisingly, the survey also found a correlation between growth and innovation. It noted that high-growth companies were “significantly more engaged” with innovation as compared to no-growth companies.

What that says is that the price of not innovating is to give up the company’s growth potential. For startups, which are often expected to deliver exponential growth, that’s not a choice.

The way to go

A six-year study on the ‘innovator’s DNA’, conducted by researchers from Brigham Young University, INSEAD, Harvard, found that innovation was the result of five “discovery skills” ­– associating (making connections), questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. The study noted that innovative entrepreneurs spent 50% more time indulging in these activities, as compared to their counterparts who had no history of innovating.

The common thread between all of these five skills is that they are directed toward making something valuable. Innovation is the pursuit to create something of value, especially in areas that are challenging or dominated by the status quo.

The ability to innovate, therefore, starts with cultivating these five skills with the goal of value creation. Caveat: The definition of value is completely subjective.

For some, it means innovating for business and economic profitability. For others, value is found in the joy of innovation. The latter is difficult to correlate with bottom lines, but is conducive to a culture of experimentation and trial. And like employees, happy innovators are productive innovators.

The environment in which the innovating is happening also needs consideration. Slapping a bunch of Key Performance Indicators onto creativity and expecting employees to follow suit does not work. Nor do corporate cultures that are hyper-focused on efficiency and cut-throat competition.

The researchers behind the study on the innovator’s DNA (who have also authored an acclaimed book of the same name) said in an article that the skills they highlighted can be developed by devoting time to practice them. Allowing employees to set aside this time can yield pivotal results for companies. It’s what led to the invention of post-its and Gmail.

Further, a Knowledge@Wharton study highlighted three key drivers that set innovative, growth-oriented leaders apart. These are investing in innovation talent and resources, adopting an outside-in approach by looking closely at emerging customer needs and trends, and encouraging prudent risk-taking through ‘fast-to-fail’ experiments.

Anthony’s The Little Black Book of Innovation also outlines a “28-Day Innovation Program” focused on discovering opportunities, blueprinting and testing ideas, and planning for progress.

This is far from the only resource available on the how-to of innovation. For instance, another study by McKinsey delineates eight essentials features for innovation within a big company.

The world of the wide web is flush with resources to encourage the process and practice of innovation. And if none of these work, organizations and individuals can well develop their own process of innovating.

The bigger ask is a commitment to step away from a company culture that makes innovation just another task on the to-do list, and to embrace the process of innovation as one of discovery and failure.

Header image by Matt Palmer on Unsplash


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