Monday, 24 August 2009

Encouraging Innovation - a morality tale for the 21st Century

Innovation. Sometimes the word itself seems an innovation. I hardly remember hearing or seeing it 20 years ago, yet now it seems to be everywhere. The gist of most of the websites and books I encounter on the subject seems to be either that 'we aren't producing enough new ideas' or that 'creativity is the key differentiator in the marketplace'. While both assertions resonate with me to a degree - it seems to me, as with so many of the surfaces that are scratched in our soundbite culture (probably including this blog), that we run the risk here of over-simplification. Simply generating more ideas is not a solution. In my experience, few organisations have the ethos of attempting the untried or the radical. Encouraging people to come up with ideas that are then thwarted or lost in the bureaucracies of permissions, committees and KPIs is more likely to generate frustration and stress than step-changes in performance. If we take 'Creativity' to mean 'thinking differently' then it is certainly crucial as a driver of improvement, as discussed in the various JUT/TQM pieces elsewhere - and as a way of generating future-focused strategies. But it seems to me that there are two distinct channels that matter here: first, the generation of new thinking and secondly: the turning of these ideas into action, implementation and progress. The first is a largely right-brained activity and the second a solidly left-brained and systematic process. For 'innovation' to occur and bear fruit, both channels must be there in abundance and working in harmony. As a leader, you are not meant to be the source of all this creativity (though if you are, that's fine too) or of the subsequent translation of the ideas into action... but you can and must be the one who creates and enables the environment and culture in which new thinking can flourish. But...

...here lies a dilemma: in this competitive and performance-managed world, exacerbated by a post-boom paranoia, leaders are encouraged to assess and minimise risk, to demand and deliver optimum results and to ensure systematic and rational decision-making at every level. And yet new thinking is inherently risky. Innovation carries with it the certainty of occasional failure. To achieve real competitive difference, it stands to reason that the organisation must do or deliver something substantially different, probably even radical. Fine as a concept. Stress and ulcer-inducing for leaders in practice.
Innovation requires bravery and a willingness to propose and/or support the unproven idea, because it has potential. Good sense requires that the risks are assessed and minimised where possible - yet risk will remain and must be borne. The leader must have the ability to sell the idea to stakeholders and the strength to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune should it fail or suffer setbacks.
Stepping back a little - the culture and environment for innovation stems from a willingness to embrace and champion the possible and desirable over the proven and known. Key players must be given the freedom and space to think differently and attempt the untried without fear of retribution for failure. Consider Richard Branson's philosophy in comparison to that of many other global brands - he is passionate about ideas and prepared to support them privately, corporately, financially and publicly - Virgin Galactic being an excellent example. From such courage mankind's great breakthroughs occur. It is unlikely that such leaps forward will stem from a culture of small, continual and incremental improvements to dividends and earnings per share - nor from a culture of conservatism that, by its very nature, suppresses innovation and discourages new thinking.

Food for thought. Today's big question:

How are you encouraging new thinking and creating the freedom to reach for new horizons?

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