So You Want to Be Innovative?

by | Jun 22, 2017

Define “Innovation.”

It’s not so easy, is it? It’s like describing air, and it’s just as vital to an organization.

Some months ago, I attended a lecture by a well-known, recently-retired government executive, followed by a small intimate dinner hosted by the university that organized the event.

The executive – a former deputy administrator at a federal agency – had many responsibilities, including a big initiative around getting the agency’s 17,000-employee workforce to be INNOVATIVE. To anchor her lecture, she presented well-designed PowerPoint slide deck – 2-by-2 grids showing the types of innovation based on incremental or transformative solutions, existing or new programs, and so forth.

In fact, it looked much like a chart pulled together by a consultant, a chart that I might have developed myself for any number of clients. It impressed by format, showcased analytical rigor, worthy of the best MBA-trained talent.

But the analytical rigor, the 2-by-­2 grids, the intellectual framework that sought to explain, dissect, analyze and synthesize this amorphous idea of INNOVATION completely missed the point.

For me, Innovation is a spirit, a feeling and a culture that encourages new ways to address old problems, that rely on looking at the world or the problem from a different angle. It’s the creative ability to connect all 9 dots laid out in a 3-by-3 square with just three lines by going outside the box. It’s the ability in our core to challenge conventional wisdom and ask why the unorthodox answer is wrong.

It is far easier for individuals to be innovative than for organizations. This brings me back to the dinner with the deputy administrator.  Between bites of the (excellent) piece of lamb, I asked her how she thought her analytical frameworks for spurring innovation at her agency actually worked. Not too well, she said with a slight (embarrassed?) grin on her face. People didn’t seem to want to volunteer ideas despite all the awards and promotional programs they had.

I asked a few simple questions. What you do when someone makes a mistake? Punish them? Counsel them? Celebrate the mistake? Does your culture reward risk taking?

We talk a lot about innovation, but we punish risk takers who make mistakes. We glorify the one in a million who hits it out of the park, but just as quickly ridicule, snub, or disregard those that took a chance but failed. At CVP, I tell new hires during “Culture and Values” training (which I still do myself): “If you are not making mistakes, you are probably not trying terribly hard.”

For organizations to be innovative, you first must examine the culture. Do you celebrate your failures and your successes? Have you shared your failures with your employees? Do your employees feel empowered to think up wild ideas to common problems?  Are they engaged? Do they even care?

Since failure and innovation do often go hand in hand, talking about failure is a necessary ingredient to enabling an innovation culture. So is recruiting talent with cross-disciplinary talents and skills  and giving teams a break from the daily grind to take a deep breath.  Only then will they have the space and flexibility to think about their business problem in different ways that challenge conventional assumptions. These are all critical cultural values for an organization that aspires to be innovative.

Innovation isn’t about process models and 2-by-2 charts. It’s about the kind of culture you promote at your organization. It’s giving people the freedom to draw lines outside the 3-by-3 box. It’s thinking about a problem in a new way, with no fear of recrimination or ridicule, and celebrating both the failures and successes.

Now, take a breath and be innovative.

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