Creativity and Innovation
Why is “Innovation” Your Most Useful Competitive Weapon?
Many senior leaders in business (in both for-profit and nonprofit ventures) tend to see innovation as one of those activities that can be a discretionary “add-on” when needed (if it’s needed at all, of course). In other words, they believe they only need to innovate from time to time, or at least only for a short time, and then go back to the standard or conservative ways of doing things. But this is a very narrow viewpoint and one which can be business-threatening and in this brief article we want to explore why and what we might do differently.
For Innovation to occur regularly and on a sustained basis at all levels it requires a climate that is supportive of ideas and creativity and one that is encouraging towards thinking flexibility or adaptability. In addition, innovation requires experience and knowledge that is both broad and deep so that people at all levels can feel comfortable with changing their minds (or pivoting in modern parlance). This should lead to people who are willing to ask innocent questions regularly and be prepared to learn anew, and often to learn quickly. Of course this is easier said than done and many organizations have nothing like this kind of climate. In fact, many businesses present an almost entirely homogenized, pre-packaged, profoundly compartmentalized, rule-bound, deeply siloed, interest-entrenched and even political culture in which new ideas and innovation of any kinds is discouraged or threatening to the current status quo. In such an environment, even when it is not as extreme as described here, the role model presented to employees is to produce (and do so as you are told) rather than create/invent new ways of achieving useful ends, to follow rather than lead, and to fear too much risk or failure (as it may permanently interrupt a person’s career). It is as if we said we want to create an entire class of risk-averse employees, ready and able to unquestioningly follow commands, and it is as if we collectively decided to treat innovation as the enemy of progress rather than its driver. Often this “controlling” climate becomes stronger as an organization increases in size and wants to standardize its processes and try to establish as much predictability as possible.
While many organizations in the past could keep creativity and innovation effort to low levels for years, or in some cases decades, especially when they had a relative industry monopoly, in the age of the Internet and much greater competition, with much of it international, no business can rest on its laurels for long and should therefore start to see innovation as its potential savior not its threat when they do need to change or pivot. Innovation should consequently be more usefully seen, in analogous terms, as “oxygen” for the body and mind or in a business setting, the critical activities in which all employees should constantly engage in small and large-scale ways in order to thrive and grow. So what does this mean in practical terms? It means that all businesses should start to encourage independent thinking and reward people for their willingness and ability to work outside of the comfort of their own team, department, structure and functional knowledge. In addition, leaders at all levels of the organization need to start asking questions such as “is this the best possible approach here?” or “could we achieve this goal with a new or different strategy?” With this approach, individuals will start to feel safe in challenging the prevailing wisdom about “how things are done around here” and safe to come up with new ideas, which of course need to be supported and rewarded, even when some of them turn out to be not as good as they were first thought. Of course, this is not easy for leaders at any level but is perhaps most difficult for so-called “middle managers” or supervisors. In this new innovative climate, their role is to create the safe environment in which everyone has an equal chance to come up with an idea and suggest how it might be implemented. Supervisors therefore need lots of support from their bosses when this happens, not to mention training in idea marshalling and innovation techniques to help the process flourish and benefit everyone.