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Who innovates, and why?

Nov 27, 2022 Management, Strategy, Success

Last week I discussed some examples of rapid and effective innovation, highlighting the “YO!” chain of sushi restaurants. That business could have taken a fatal hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, given the high-touch nature of its business; but lo and behold, it’s still alive, still kicking, still growing.

Others didn’t experience that fortunate an outcome. Many similar restaurants were shuttered during the prolonged lockdowns—some for good. YO! managed to think laterally, retain its business model, and yet come up with a convincing change in how its food was ordered and served.

Why can some organizations innovate, and others just can’t? This is a question that has preoccupied me for years. We all know we live in an era of crazy-quick change; we all know that effective innovation is vital for our survival in the face of rapidly evolving customer tastes and ever-disruptive technology. We know we all need to do this thing called innovation; but most of us just can’t. Why should that be?

Let me share some insights from my research and observation today.

Firstly, the quickest and most effective innovation happens when things are thick, really thick! COVID-19 was a perfect testing ground for this idea. Many of my clients who had stayed comfortably stuck in the good old ways, suddenly woke up and got going. They went digital, virtual, and low-touch in a matter of weeks, not years. My own team enjoyed a remarkable burst of innovation in the early months of the pandemic, coming up with a slew of new products and fresh ways of working.

Why? Because we had no choice. The writing was on the wall; innovate, or die. Go big or go home. So my first soundbite for you is this: the comfortable don’t innovate. You have to believe, truly believe, in the necessity of innovation in order to make it happen. Near-death experiences often drive the most remarkable innovations!

Second, let’s please understand that innovation is a team sport, not a solo endeavour. Yes, we are all conditioned to believe in fairy-tale archetypes of creative geniuses who innovate alone in blinding flashes of inspiration. Nice story, but the truth is a little more prosaic. Sustained innovation comes from highly engaged teams bouncing off one another; and it comes from dogged and determined testing of ideas. It’s really quite boring, until it isn’t.

That brings me to my second message: the bored don’t innovate. Effective innovation demands highly engaged teams who are given the safety to try some wild stuff out; who enjoy working with one another; who care about the outcome. That doesn’t sound like most teams in most organizations you know, right? That’s why continual and advantageous innovation is rare. Duh.

Organizations that innovate have leaders with two abilities: the ability to make people uncomfortable; and the ability to make them care. The first ability generates creative tension; the second makes them enjoy the process and invest personally in its outcome.

Let me end with my third take-home: the faint of heart don’t innovate. Most innovations fail. Innovation guru Alex Osterwalder tells us that of any ten innovation projects, six will very likely fail completely; three might sorta, kinda, bring some limited success; and just one—if you’re lucky—may be the big one that powers new growth.

Those aren’t the sorts of odds most organizations like to deal with. It’s very difficult to go to your board of directors and say you want them to fund projects with a one-in-ten likelihood of success. But that’s the nature of the game. Innovators take risks; they try stuff out; they run experiments; they shut trials down when early results reveal hot air rather than gold. They tolerate failure, as long as it is metered and managed smartly.

Innovation is a team process. It depends on urgency and commitment; it requires high engagement; and it often ends in failure. That’s why few of us can pull it off. Those who make it work play the long game; they invest in their human beings and create conditions in which those folks can give of their best; and they structure investment over a portfolio of options, using a piloting programme to reveal what will fly or not fly in the real world.

The folks who can’t innovate, what are they like? Well, they are often a little too smug and self-satisfied; they are often bored and disengaged and always looking at their CVs; and they are often conservative and wedded to the parameters of the past—rigid, bureaucratic, and fixated on old-world business plans.

The worst thing you can do is to centre your innovation efforts on just one person—no matter how brainy or creative. Innovation is a culture, a way of being, a set of daily habits. It is as regular as brushing your teeth. If more people can see it for what it really is, more people can start shaping the future instead of being flummoxed by it.

(Sunday Nation, 27 November 2022)

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