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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Innovation is not a room.

If you've spent more than 5 minutes in the corporate world you've heard the word “innovation” more than is healthy. Innovation is held up as a panacea for all corporate woes. Every company no matter how large wants to be innovative. So they build a room.

 I'm serious. A company recognizes that it has become stagnant in a fast moving economy. They desperately need to change the core of how they do business. So they build a room. The room has wacky art, comfy chairs, video games, no walls and maybe, just maybe, some beer. They take pictures for cool office weekly and declare the job done. They are now innovative. Except, of course, they're not.

Which brings me to my thesis and the title of this post.

Innovation is not a room.

For those on the outside looking in this seems obvious. However it's easy to see where these executives went wrong. They see that the most innovative companies have cool workspaces and get the cause and effect backwards. So they put down bean bag chairs and wait for the next iPad. Innovation is not a room. Innovation is the result of a culture that supports its employees, praises spectacular failure and has an insatiable curiosity.

I suspect it's not all ignorance. The real path to innovation is not that hard to see but it would require the people making the changes to lose their jobs. That's innovation secret number one.

1. If you don't fire or demote all of your current managers and executives you will never be innovative.

No array of license plates on the wall can counteract soul crushing management. You can't have the same leaders and a completely new way of doing business. There in lies the rub. Who will make the change that puts themselves out on the street? Which brings me to innovation secret number two.

2. You're going to need new people.
Your people are damaged. Your company damaged them and you've got not way to fix them. If you don't bring in new, undamaged people, you'll never make fix your people. I'm not saying fire all of your workers. I'm saying surround them with new management and coworkers. An influx of enthusiasm is the only cure for cynicism. New people also bring new ideas and a fresh way of looking at things. This leads me to innovation secret number three, and this one is scary.

3. Set your people free

Let your employees try new things. Give them concrete goals and then leave them alone. Listen to their ideas. This is basic empowerment drivel but you can't just pay lip service to it. You have to make failure not just ok but expected. Innovation dies in a culture built on fear. You can't motivate your employees with a pink slip. All that gets you is what you want to hear. It's like an abused child talking to a father who has had one to many, survival becomes paramount. Nothing new has ever came from playing it safe. Except maybe helmets.

You'll notice my solutions focus on people. Chairs simply aren't creative. People are what got you to where you are and they are the only thing the will get you where you need to be. A wacky office is nice. Having the best people, treating them well and trusting them is better.

The sad truth is I don't think I'm saying anything most executives don't know. I'm just saying things they won't do. They aren't payed to. They are paid to max quarterly earnings. Creating a brand new corporate culture that actually supports creativity takes more than a quarter. Profits from that culture take years. So they build a room.


Blogger EightE1 said...

Your third point is most important -- let people fail. Let them make outrageous suggestions, make plans to make actual stuff from those suggestions, make a spectacular mess while making that stuff, learn from it all, and try again. A good analogy is writing; there has never, to my knowledge, been a novel published by a major publishing house that didn't go through several (nay, many) drafts and revisions on its journey from the author's head to the reader's hands (possible exception -- Bridges of Madison County).

Google "Lockheed Martin Skunk Works" to see one tremendous and groundbreaking example of how innovation can emerge from an enormous company. Helped us win World War II.

Also -- and this may be the only time you'll hear me say this -- I don't think you need to fire everyone at the top echelon of power. My guess is there are, in most organizations, at least one or two people in positions of influence who get it. Find them, fire everyone else, and rebuild around those outliers.

Riiiight. That'll happen.

6:12 AM  

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