Interview – Jeff Lindsay of “Conquering Innovation Fatigue”
I had the opportunity to interview Jeff Lindsay, one of the co-authors of “Conquering Innovation Fatigue” about the recession, innovation challenges that organizations face, the role of government in innovation, and needs of the innovation workforce.
Looking across the broad range of our conversation, the importance of alignment is probably the thread that ties it all together.
Here is the text from the interview:
1. What is the biggest challenge that companies face in the Great Recession?
Apart from looming external factors beyond their control, I would say that the biggest challenges that they can control are various combinations of fear and pride. Fear of markets, of change, of the unknown, etc., tends to paralyze at precisely the moment when vigorous action is needed. Pride also hinders needed change. When a company has unhealthy optimism in its business plan, in its intellectual property, in its market position, etc., it is likely to be blind to new opportunities and needed changes in its approach. Rather than blind fear or blinding optimism, improved vision can be achieved with what we call “healthy paranoia” on our blog (InnovationFatigue.com).
2. When it comes to people fatigue, what is the biggest challenge that you see organizations facing?
Withholding of important information is a key problem for organizations that are struggling with innovation fatigue. This can happen for a couple of reasons. When a company is struggling and seems to be in decline, some people find that what is best for their own careers is to lay low and only say what others want to hear. Rocking the boat with alternative approaches, bad news, or warnings is viewed as high risk. If a pet project faces serious challenges due to market risk, technical risks, or legal risks, people may not be motivated to challenge the momentum or raise red flags. Likewise, when a company doesn’t properly value its innovation community or has broken bonds of trust and mutual respect, the”will to share” can be broken. Employees then may not only refuse to share their best ideas, but also their best advice, including warnings about technical or IP risks. In this case, some may simply play along and not have the courage to speak out where it is needed, for “the company doesn’t want to hear my opinions anyway.” For a few, it may be a passive-aggressive response, but for most, it is simply feeling that there is no sense fighting.
When the relationship between the company and its innovation community is healthy, the voice of the innovator is heard and people feel motivated to share and to challenge. Their interests are relatively more aligned with the interests of the corporation and are more likely to speak out and share the information needed for success.
My answer actually focuses more on organizational fatigue, but these personal aspects of organizational fatigue are probably where the bigger challenges are versus the internal rivalries and bad behaviors in the people fatigue sections of the book.
3. Where does the greatest opportunity lie for government to make a positive contribution to reducing innovation fatigue?
There are numerous opportunities here, ranging from taxation policies, government patent systems, regulations, and laws affecting university-industry relationships. But all of these could be addressed by the main recommendation we make to policy makers: “Listen to the voice of the innovator.” Laws and policies should be considered in terms of their impact on the innovation community of the nation – not just the CEOs of the largest companies. We encourage government to have commissions or panels representing a wide range of innovators – the lone inventor, R&D managers, university professors, corporate innovators, small business leaders and entrepreneurs, etc., and certainly some CEOs – to gain perspectives on the often unintended anti-innovation consequences that government policies can have. This may be especially important to properly weigh various aspects of proposed patent reform, for example. I think government needs to more actively listen to the voice of innovators and understand the external innovation fatigue factors they face.
4. What stands in the way of many companies being able to deliver new innovations to market?
Poor internal alignment. It’s a principle I try to teach in a lighthearted way with my cut-and-restored newspaper magic effect on InnovationFatigue.com, but it’s a very serious issue. Alignment means that the behaviors of people throughout the corporation are aligned with the common objective of furthering the good of the corporation. Sometimes the culture of an organization or its performance management system rewards people for behaviors that aren’t aligned with the long-term good of the company. Many times poor innovation metrics lead to activities and behaviors that game the metrics without advancing the corporation. Keeping the innovation community and other part of the organization in tune with the needs of the company requires broad communication, strong bonds of trust (the “will to share”), clear strategy, strong innovation systems, healthy metrics, good incentives, and broad cooperation across organizational boundaries. We address some of this in our chapter on the “Horn of Innovation,” where we discuss the importance of broad internal feedback loops to keep the innovation community involved, in tune, and following the musical/corporate score.
As I say in my video about alignment and innovation, “If you’re not aligned, you’re skewed.”
5. If you were to change one thing about our educational system to better prepare students to contribute in the innovation workforce of tomorrow, what would it be?
Strengthen reading and writing skills. These are foundational for so much. Without them, it’s hard to innovate and hard to influence others for the social adoption aspect of innovation. Improved math and science skills would be a bonus, also.
6. What skills do you believe that managers need to acquire to succeed in an innovation-led organization?
Humility and concern for the people around them. That concern and humility will lead them to listen to the voice of the innovators in their organization and strengthen the will to share and the alignment of innovators with the needs of the corporation. Innovation is all about people. If leaders don’t have their trust and respect, if they don’t have their ears and their hearts, they won’t have their minds.
As a special bonus, here is a video of Jeff Lindsay talking about the importance of alignment and doing a bit of magic:
What do you think?
Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is the creator of the Nine Innovation Roles Group Diagnostic Tool and author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.