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Thinking Askew - The "On Innovation Time" Issue

Thinking Askew - The "On Innovation Time" Issue
By Alf Rehn • Issue #11 • View online
I’ve been thinking a lot about time recently. I wrote a lot on time when still a doctoral student, and every so often I return to the topic. Today, an excerpt from Innovation for the Fatigued that deals with timing, and an interesting little piece I picked up from Strategy+Business. Stay tuned, big things may be coming soon!

Working on Innovation Time
Innovation takes time. I know… Shocking, right? Still this very trivial fact contains a surprising amount of depth, with strange assumptions and ignored truths often skewing the manner in which we understand innovation time. In this chapter, we will inquire into the many times (plural!) of innovation, and why an understanding of temporal diversity can promote healthy innovation cultures. Innovation doesn’t have one time, but rather dances to a multitude of beats, tempos, rhythms. Sometimes, innovation is defined by the staccato and the insistent beats of a boisterous rap. At other times, it is defined by the languorous and sorrowful sound of a sad country song. And yet, both are attuned to innovation time.
Innovation is often talked of as if it was defined by speed, echoing the notion of dromology, or the science of speed, as this has been discussed by the philosopher Paul Virilio. We speak of speed to market and of crunch time, and celebrate speedy slogans such as “Move fast and break things!” (Now available as a poster, a coffee mug, a t-shirt, a hoodie, a pillow, and a sticker from Startup Vitamins! This is not a joke, and definitively not an advert. More a warning of an impending apocalypse.). This addiction notwithstanding, real innovation time is far more complex than the notion of relentless speed.
For a leader wishing to understand innovation, it is important that they understand innovation times as well. Run a project that requires a long gestation period like an agile sprint, and you will end up with a project that doesn’t live up to its potential. Run all experiments like they require years of patient testing, and you’ll end up with a mostly inert innovation culture with little agility or enthusiasm. We live in innovation times, and the plural form is important. Just like there are many kinds of ideas, and many kinds of innovation, there are many kinds of times to all this. 
Between Comfort And Panic
The reason speed is so often seen as being at the heart of innovation is due to the energy that velocity brings. When people feel that there’s energy and things happening, they are more likely to accept novel ideas, agree to experiments, accept odd new ways of doing things. Further, when people feel that there is no immediate need to change things, they can get lethargic, comfortable, slow. In other words, innovation often requires a change of tempo, a shift in the rhythms of an organization. Sometimes this shift might be something small, such as reacting in a curious, nurturing way to ideas, getting a conversation rolling. At other times, it might be a question of making people aware of a crisis they’ve previously been ignoring.
I’ve found it difficult to trace the true background of using “burning platform” as a metaphor for necessary change in an organization. Some things seem clear, however. In July 1988, an oil-drilling platform named Piper Alpha suffered a catastrophic fire, killing 168 people. 63 crew-members survived, some by simply jumping off the burning platform into the ice-cold North Sea. This disaster was broadly publicized in media, and the notion of jumping off a burning platform started to get used in organizational change. The term became world-known, however, thanks to a internal memo at Nokia. CEO Stephen Elop might not have turned the company around, but his message about just how difficult the situation was for the once mighty mobile communications company made headline news. By describing Nokia as a burning platform, and by thus drawing a parallel between it and a deadly disaster in the making, he certainly shook the organizational culture, and cemented the place of the term in the broader business lexicon. 
Today, when we refer to a burning platform, we’re in effect saying that business as usual will kill us. In such a situation, it matters less exactly what we do, and more that we start doing something. When a CEO declares the company to be in this kind of a position, this is done to make everyone understand that there is a qualitative difference between then and now. Time has shifted, in such a telling, and the old rules no longer apply. This kind of declaration, in which a state of exception is invoked, can be a very powerful thing. If we look at major turnaround efforts, we can often find that they hinged on there being a moment in which management openly stated that the company could go down in flames. Nothing like imminent death to focus the mind.
This said, you can really only do this once. When you ring this kind of alarm bell, effectively signaling that there’s been a rift in time and that exceptional measures are being taken, you can create a sense of urgency and make people more inclined to innovate. However, once this is done, it is exceedingly difficult to do again (at least unless several years have passed). Just like the boy who cried wolf, people will tire of the manager who cries crisis. You cannot invoke endless velocity and constantly demand more, as this only creates fatigue. Worse than that, it can make talk of crises and the need for radical new ways of working sound like just so much hot air. 
The smart manager realizes that yes, talking of a burning platform is one way to work with innovation time. But it is only one, and a particularly unique one at that. We might talk of innovation management as having a toolbox of different times. The chaotic energy created by invoking a metaphor such as the burning platform comes from one such time, but there are many others besides – so many I could write a book on them alone. In the following I will just outline some of these, and why understanding the varying ways in which these innovation times work and the direct effect they have on innovation cultures. The times I’ll primarily focus on are:
1. The rapid times of agile spurts.
2. Brief, powerful moments in time.
3. Slow, patient times.
4. Pauses and breaks.
I will also touch upon notions such as tempo and slack, and end with a call for managers who wish to work with innovation to see time not as an objective, given thing, but as something that can be played with in imaginative ways.
(Yes, I know this ends a bit abruptly, but as I said, it’s an excerpt!)
A tidbit I picked up in my newsfeed
That's all for today folks. Remember, sharing is caring!
Did you enjoy this issue?
Alf Rehn

Professor of management & innovation, speechifier, and popular culture geek.

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