Innovation must constantly struggle for attention

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation must constantly struggle for attentionThere’s a famous George Orwell quote that is one of my favorites, and it speaks volumes about where many organizations are with innovation today. Orwell’s quote is:

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

What Orwell meant is that the obvious stuff that exists in front of us often disappears into the woodwork as we become consumed with daily activities, priorities and pressures. I’d suggest that for big businesses, the quote could be appended to say:

To solve customer problems using innovation requires constant attention

I write this today prompted by several topics.

The first is Scott Anthony’s post wondering if the economy changes innovation. My answer is perhaps the opposite – can innovation change our reaction to the economy? Innovation is now more important than ever, but what’s like to happen is that the economy and the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding it will simply cause people to lose focus on innovation, at a time when they should be more focused on innovation. Innovation needs a constant struggle for attention.

The second prompt is the silence from one of my customers. We are scheduled to talk about innovation projects, but I can already play the conversation in my head.

Me: We were going to talk about kicking off that new innovation effort to (blah blah)

She: Yes, well, I’ve been so busy reacting to all of the short term issues I haven’t had a chance to think about innovation.

Me (in my head only, hopefully): How can innovation ever take a back seat?

Innovation needs a constant struggle for attention.

The reality is, innovation is for most organizations an occasional, strange, painful event to be avoided unless specifically demanded by executives. It is akin to eating vegetables and ruffage – we know we should be doing it, but it is easy to put off, especially with all the other demands and tasty choices. Unless and until innovation is constantly at the forefront of your organization’s thinking, it is very unlikely to happen, and will never happen well.

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At Notre Dame’s football stadium, over the door the football players use to enter the stadium, are the words “Play like a champion today”. You can’t go through that door without seeing those words, and the tradition is that every player touches that doorframe to remind themselves of the task at hand. What would it be like if the words “Did you innovate today?” appeared over every door and on every screen saver in your organization?

The truth is, unless innovation is front and center, every day and in every location, constantly reinforced, it will become an afterthought, engaged only when the firm is in a commanding position and hopes to accelerate away from competitors, or when the firm has exhausted all options and turns to innovation as a last resort. Innovation needs a constant struggle for attention.

So, what are we to take from this? If your CEO says innovation is important, look around for the signs that suggest it will be supported and reinforced constantly. Or, absent that, take the CEO at his/her word and put up the messaging to remind people about the importance of innovation. Hold a meeting to recognize innovation efforts every week or month. Include innovation activities in your weekly reports. If innovation isn’t part of the drum beat, it will be exceptionally hard to hear the innovation music, until it fades away.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey 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 “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

No comments

  1. Jeff,

    I recently presented Whirlpool’s innovation strategy at Notre Dame’s Innovation Park (https://www.innovationparknd.com/) and as soon as I read your article the image came to my mind. They have a super towel hanging from the ceiling that reads: Innovate like a champion today!

    Liked your article, it is very true.

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