Wednesday, March 1, 2017

How (not) to Crush Innovation

I was drawn to a discussion that was intended to be about fostering innovation – but which, like many, degenerated quickly into the typical litany of complaints about the barriers to innovation.   But there is some value in analyzing that, as removing barriers will achieve some progress and considering the reasoning behind the complaint (and its possible solution) would suggest a good practice that may not foster innovation, but will at least refrain from smothering it.

And so, I’ve taken some notes and added some thoughts.  This is likely not a comprehensive or systematic list, just an analysis of a conversation such as it was, but it seems like good working material nonetheless:

Innovation initiatives do not have a clear goal.

A group of people is assembled for the purpose of “being innovative” without a clear sense of the problem they are meant to solve or the goal they are meant to achieve.

Solution: Set a clear and well-articulated goal for innovation initiatives.

Innovation is used for efficiency improvements.

Rather than seeking a novel solution to a problem, the innovation initiative is geared to preserve business as usual while making process or technical improvements.

Solution: Remove constraints to solving the problem or consider a different approach.

Innovation is done by committee.

While many can contribute knowledge to an innovation effort, having large groups is poisonous to creativity: they tend to discuss matters superficially and seek to build consensus rather than exploring unusual ideas.  The result is groupthink and preservation of the status quo.

Solution: Separate the task of information gathering from the process of innovation and conduct innovation in smaller groups.

Innovation is squelched by institutionalized employees.

Long-tenured employees have a great deal of subject-matter expertise, but also a greater level of devotion to the status quo and are defensive if past decisions.   Newcomers with truly novel ideas area quickly intimidated or bullied into silence.

Solution: Moderate innovation sessions to ensure that every idea gets a fair hearing and every participant is able to contribute.

Innovation is squelched by risk-averse administrators.

Any new idea is perceived as being “too risky” to pursue, so the innovation team becomes reluctant to stray too far from the well-worn path.

Solution: Separate the evaluation process from the innovation process. 

Innovation is time-boxed.

While there is a need to come to a conclusion, innovation efforts that are too constrained are unable to spend sufficient time in the information gathering and brainstorming processes.  To innovate quickly often means leaping on the first idea.

Solution: Provide ample time for an innovation effort and set a goal of coming up with several different solutions before moving forward.  Ensure there is sufficient time for each activity.

The “innovation space” lacks quiet and solitude

Collaboration and information sharing are important parts of innovation, but coming up with a solution often requires time to think and reflect outside of a circus atmosphere.

Solution: Schedule both collaboration and incubation periods during an innovation effort.

Innovation efforts become competitive and contentious

In the struggle to have “my idea” implemented, participants in innovation efforts can be competitive with one another, attempting to silence others.

Solution: Moderate to reduce competition among participants, reward team rather than individual efforts, and eliminate the presence of supervisors and management from parts of the process where their presence might encourage participants to attempt to show off.

Innovation is relentless and participants burn out

The constant need to innovate creates a mental overload.  While many creative people will labor long hours when they are on the trail of an idea, long hours do not make people creative and often create weariness and drain enthusiasm.

Solution: Where intense thought and concentration are required, schedule short sessions with ample breaks.   Consider returning innovators to routine duties for a period between innovation initiatives.

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