After almost ten years of innovation consulting, I’ve come to learn some things about innovation, of course, but more importantly corporate cultures, hierarchies and power structures. After years of wondering why sustained innovation is so difficult, I’ve come to the conclusion that for many firms, innovation is viewed as an occasional variation from the status quo.
That doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t important. In that moment, during that project, innovation is very important. But while it is important, it is also obtrusive, works outside the regular working conditions, demands resources that are normally deployed in other work and introduces new tools and methods. Like a rubber band that snaps back to its original size and configuration, many organizations “snap back” to a historical norm once an innovation project is complete. And, often, what I’ll call innovation exhaustion sets in.
Innovation exhaustion is the culmination of the effort involved in introducing new tools, stretching perspectives and the breadth of thinking, pulling people from their regular jobs to perform innovation activities that they aren’t convinced management will support, and asking them to work in ambiguous, uncertain environments with little preparation or training. Conducting innovation as a periodic, poorly defined and poorly prepared activity is literally exhausting to an organization. While the results may be very positive, it is often very difficult to get people to agree to do another innovation activity soon after the initial one is complete. But that’s exactly what they should do.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Just like the famous advice on the side of your shampoo bottle, the most important step (after documenting what worked and what didn’t in the initial innovation activity) is to quickly define another important innovation need, and perform another round of innovation. Not necessarily in the same product area or business function, and not necessarily with the same scope, of course, but as quickly as possible develop another innovation activity that fills an important product or service gap. Why?
There are more reasons than I’d care to count here, but let’s list three: continuity, to demonstrate the importance of consistent, sustained innovation; learning, to demonstrate that innovation is a learned skill that people gain by repeating the activity, momentum, to demonstrate that the rubber band, now stretched in new ways, isn’t going to return to the old shape and structure. You see, conducting one innovation project is difficult and costly because it must overcome all the inertia and resistance built up over time, and what little training or tools are introduced is quickly frittered away unless the activity is repeated. The only way to gain skills rapidly and resist the natural urge to return to status quo is to sustain momentum, repeat the process and gain new learning, and hopefully new outcomes. Otherwise innovation exhaustion sets in. The organization will argue for time to “Catch its breath”, to digest what it has created, to fully implement and document new methods and new procedures. This is simply a stalling exercise for the old methods and culture to creep back in and shackle the organization with the same lethargy as before.
These facts, in fact, are why many people avoid or resist innovation or are reluctant to participate in an innovation activity. They understand how much energy and commitment it will take to bring an innovation team up to speed, and how much resistance the team will face and how little time and investment the team will receive, and further, how quickly the organization will revert to its old, consistent ways of doing things. However, if it is clear that a number of innovation projects are aligned and your executive team expects repeated, sustained innovation over time, the old methods and culture can’t snap back into place. Yes, this approach places greater strain on the organization – demanding that innovation exist side by side with continuous achievement of efficiency and quarterly results – but that’s the only way to build continuity, sustain momentum and force change in the corporate culture. Otherwise, innovation exhaustion will set in, the organization will revert to its normal practices and every innovation attempt is a major leap of faith to overcome the barriers and resistors inherent in the existing culture. Don’t allow the organization a minute of breathing time: the rubber band snaps back very quickly, and is very hard to stretch again.
image credit: young businessman 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.