In every company there exist at least three simultaneous perspectives. The first is about the history of the company, its origins, growth, struggles, successes. The history often defines perspectives and forms the basis of organizational culture. The stories you tell, the way you remember things about the past all influence the culture, which influences the second perspective: the present. While the future is important, the present is paramount.
Most organizations spend the vast majority of their time worrying about today or tomorrow. The present and the near present fill our days – will we complete a certain project on time? Will we achieve our quarterly numbers? And so on.
The overwhelming emphasis on the past and the present leave little time for contemplation of the timeframe or perspective that is increasing the most important: the future. Our current management teams have grown up in settings where the future is always coming but never seems to arrive. Today however it seems that the future is always unfolding, always changing. Patterns, business, economies even countries and currencies are no longer as stable and reliable as what they were. Change is increasing and the future is approaching much more quickly. William Gibson, the famous author has a quote I like: “The future is already here, just not evenly distributed“.
So, you may say, this is good, but what does it have to do with innovation?
The Nostalgic Past
In many organizations, when a team encounters a new idea, their first exercise is to look to the past. Did our organization ever examine or consider this idea, or one similar to it, before? If so, what were the recommendations and more importantly, the objections? Rosabeth Moss Kantor wrote a list of innovation barriers recently. She suggested that one surefire way to block innovation is to invoke history. If you look hard enough, there is always a reason or precedent you can find for not pursuing an idea. This is what I call nostalgic history, and when I encounter this thinking in an innovation project I ask one question: are the market conditions, competitors and consumer demands exactly the same as when this idea was rejected previously? Because if any change has occurred in the intervening years, the idea may have merit now that it lacked then. The nostalgic history assumes that the world hasn’t changed, and that ideas once surfaced can be safely rejected forever.
But this nostalgic history is the least of your worries. When a consumer demand or market shift creates a new need, your thoughts and considerations should be directed into the future, not the past. You should be asking the question: what if this trend continues? What are the emerging needs, threats and opportunities, rather than, what did we do in the past? The answers for your future growth don’t lie in your past, but in your future.
The Overstimulated Present
But you don’t have time for a careful review of the past, or a meaningful scan of the future, because your engagement with the present is all consuming, all encompassing. The present is the enemy of careful thought, quiet contemplation and interesting innovation, because we are all firefighters now. Our reward systems, recognition systems and compensation are tied to quarterly results and we’ve optimized systems and processes to demand our full attention to the present.
With this focus we hop from crisis to crisis, constantly sustaining our heads just above the waterline, constantly promising ourselves that when the time is right we’ll focus on the future. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same activities over and over again and expecting different results. By this definition, current management styles and emphasis are insane. Until you break the pernicious cycle of currentism, you’ll never become more innovative, and that’s where your best future lies.
The Current Future
And, after all, Gibson is right. The future is already here, it’s just not recognized or widely distributed. New products will emerge before you can respond, and new needs and customer segments will unfold before you can react. Until your organization places as much emphasis on the future, and its emerging needs, opportunities and threats, treading water is the BEST you can accomplish, and that will be a slow drowning anyway. It’s time for innovators to recognize that a shift in organizational focus is necessary. Too often we turn to the past for guidance, when the conditions and experiences don’t offer guidance in the current market and unfolding future. Too often we allow an overstimulated, overscheduled present to distract us from thinking about the future. What is innovation if not banking on the future of your job, your skills, your products and your company’s future?
The Future is Now, and it’s Innovation
Make the cultural shift to spend more time and effort thinking about and experiencing the future through innovation. Innovation offers the bridge between the imagination and the practical. Sitting around thinking about the future is interesting but doesn’t deliver results that can make your organization viable. Innovating contemplates the future but takes action to ensure your place in that future. You don’t have a meaningful future without innovation. Innovation is the future of your company. If you believe that statement, then ask yourself: how much time, effort, resource, funding are we investing in our future?
image credit: green business image from bigstock
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.