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The Innovation Bind

Over the last 4 years, through working with clients, and carrying out innovation research, I’ve noticed the emergence of a social phenomenon, and I think it deserves some attention. It’s to do with work that needs innovative thinking. I wonder if there are growing societal pressures that mean we both need innovation more, and are less likely to get it, because we need it!

Clients will sometimes say things like:

“We’re too wrapped up in the day job / too few ideas come from too few people / our ideas come from senior people who are not close enough to the customers / ideas get blocked by middle-managers / we’re good at having ideas but we don’t get them implemented quickly enough, and if, we do, we don’t adopt them widely enough if they work.”

“Is that it?”, I may ask, and they’ll continue:

“No – there’s something else. Because we’re not used to this type of work, I’ve noticed that when we try to do it, we close conversations down too quickly. We go for the first or second idea someone suggests. We tend to offer safe ideas, and we systematically weed out the unusual ones.”

The rest of this thought piece looks at the underlying dynamics, symptoms and ideas for escaping the bind.

Creativity and unanswered questions

Creativity is often defined as the generation and development of novel plus useful ideas; innovation as the successful implementation of these ideas, bringing ‘value’ to stakeholders. The nature of work requiring innovation means we do this work with many unanswerable questions. If we’re doing something new to our context, there are no obvious ‘right’ answer and we have to accept surprises along the way. This not knowing, of itself, brings anxiety, which, if strong enough, is a strong physiological force for closing our perception and thinking. The not knowing can also bring excitement and maybe mixed emotions, at the same time.

I noticed this first-hand with groups when studying for my doctorate, and understanding what helped them continue exploring for new ideas, and what, sometimes, led to them reverting to safe options.

Janet Crawford mentions this operating, at a neurological level, in a recent interview.*  She describes how the brain generates feelings of discomfort when we try to change things, counterbalanced by sensations of excitement from other parts of the brain, driven by dopamine, when we explore and venture into new territory. The question is: what determines whether continued exploration or a safety-first reversion to habit gets the upper hand?

Dealing with innovation at a personal and organizational level

Here’s something else I think is going on: the phenomenon is fractal.  It manifests at different levels, but is propelled by the same, simple neurological battle above.  At the individual level, when people feel too anxious, they withdraw their energies and play-safe. They do good-enough work, carefully avoiding risk-taking. Teams weed out novel ideas, leaving the safer ones that are likely to be palatable to powerful, more senior people. A senior manager recently told me that:

“We need to be much more focused around the customer. If we could remove these obstacles at the boundaries of our divisions, the customer would have a much more pleasant experience in being with us.  We know we have to do it, and we want to do it, but we find it very hard. I don’t know why we can’t overcome this…”

At organisational levels, the silos – and the cultural and power grains that maintain them – rule the roost, and stop organisations becoming truly customer-centric. These are just different, scalable expressions of the same underlying dynamics.

A reality check: there’s nothing much new in the above!  We’ve known about this dynamic for some time. What is new is that the need for and scale of innovation are growing. What’s also changing, for many organisations, is the increased threat of exposure from perceived failure.  

Anxiety Producers: NI+T+S

Here are the factors involved:

NI = Need for Innovation.  The work itself, requiring new products, services, processes, business models… The not knowing associated with the outcomes of this work can be anxiety producing for people.

T = Threat of public exposure if the work is perceived to ‘fail’.

S = Scale of innovation. The work of extended co-ordination across units, even across organisations.

All of these factors can raise anxiety levels, and lead people to withdraw their best energies.  What is noticeable, from my work with clients, is that all three are on the increase.  Sectors that have increased regulation associated with performance will especially recognize the Threat element: financial services, professional services, health, education… Scale of collaboration is on the increase, as we see more organisations solving problems beyond the capacity of their organizational boundaries to solve.  The threat of bad publicity, fuelled by social media, builds a negative anticipation that leads people to retreat and seek safety.

This is the bind: the very circumstances that mean we need innovative conversations to produce novel outcomes themselves provide the inevitable uncertainties that make this thinking difficult.  These are factors operating beyond the control of individuals. They are societal processes and no-one planned them. They are examples of the confluence of emergent, complex trends in society. Fortunately, these are not the only factors at play.

Exploration enablers: EN + Tr + D + LS

EN = Innovation can simultaneously be Exciting and anxiety producing! Exploration can be fun, and a venture into the unknown.

Tr = Degree of Trust between the team members directly working on the change, so we are prepared to state and discuss ideas within our immediate team.

D = Group Diversity. Without this in place, even the best efforts

LS = Explicit Leadership Support that gives the working group a permission and a safety net for their efforts.

This is the side where powerful leaders can make a difference.  My work tells me that leaders sometimes don’t know what to do, on a daily, practical level, to help innovation efforts.  They can, and should, state the need for exciting, new thoughts.  They should give people time and opportunity to build sufficient trust. This part is often overlooked, but is essential.  They should also ensure that there is enough diversity of background and mindset in the working group. Finally, and unequivocally, senior leaders from the wider organization should give explicit, public support for the innovation in question. If the team members know they have a metaphorical safety net, they will be more likely to continue in their exploration for creativity.

Leaders can also acknowledge and label the anxiety producers. Everyone knows they’re there. The simple mention of these irritants can help people to discuss them more comfortably. The other thing all leaders can do is to be aware of these growing societal patterns attending innovation and increase their awareness of what is within their influence, what isn’t, and channel their energies accordingly.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive formula for predicting the likely success of innovation work in groups.  It’s a thought-piece, intended to stimulate more discussion and sharing of experiences.  How far does the Innovation Bind resonate with your own experiences?  What do you think of the prescriptions for action?

© Bluegreen Learning Ltd


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