There is no end to the amount that is written about “innovative organizations”, or more precisely companies that are referred to as being innovators. This however does not mean that everything written about such organizations is actually about innovation at all. In fact, I would be prepared to argue that most of what is today written about innovation is in fact about mothing of the sort, and that such texts have more to do with our dreams and desires than actual innovation. In fact, it is far more common that companies get innovation wrong than that they get it right, no matter how loudly they talk about innovation being a “core value” or how many consultants they hire to run brainstorming workshops.
What surprised me when I started looking more closely at this – which I’ve come to call our innovation crisis – was that there seemed to be no connection between the stated innovation focus of companies and their actual innovation output. In fact, if there was a connection it was an inverse one. Companies who hired lots of innovation consultants and ran lots of workshops and seminars on it, often were the ones with the least actual innovation. What they did have, in spades, was innovation fatigue, a palpable sense among their employees that there was little or no engagement and energy for such matters. Intrigued by this I started to list some of the things that companies that did exhibit strong cultures of deep creativity did, and came to realize that these often went directly against the perceived wisdom regarding innovation.
Here, I’ve collated some of these lessons. Not an exhaustive list, but I hope they can serve as an inspiration:
1. They see innovation as a special case
If any- and everything is called innovation, the word starts losing meaning. Deep innovation cultures understand this, and only refer to the biggest leaps and the most radical advances as innovations. This means that there is something to strive towards, and the achievement feels meaningful.
Lesson: Use the word less, and only for truly special things.
2. They allow for time off from innovation
When you insist on “everyday innovation” or “innovation as usual”, you are burning out your organization. By making it clear that the organization doesn’t constantly need to fret about innovating, you focus the energy to where it is best utilized, intense spurts of development. Also, you lessen the stress that comes with feeling that there perpetually is something you’re not doing.
Lesson: Designate “innovation time”, but also time off from it.
3. They clarify expectations
Just saying “think outside the box” is not helpful. Stop doing it. Successful innovation leaders communicate expectations clearly, both when it comes to what counts as good enough, and what is considered an amazing success. Talking of “moonshots” in a company with low-tech products can be perceived as leaders being completely detached from reality, yet such companies can also innovate in their own way.
Lesson: Don’t just ask people to be innovative, explain targets and communicate wishes in clear, measurable ways.
4. They don’t use trivial examples
Anyone can (and does) refer to Apple, Google, and Tesla. These massive successes can make innovation seem impossible to achieve, and as many companies are in radically different businesses, it can be unclear what they mean. Using examples is good, but only if they are perceived as meaningful and in some way attainable.
Lesson: Use examples that make sense to the people in your organization.
5. They balance ambition and realism
Deep innovation cultures aim to create innovations that have an impact. They aim to keep innovation inspiring by connecting it to worthwhile goals, yet they don’t set up targets that depress people. They celebrate saving lives, if only a couple, more than they talk about 10x or 100x growth.
Lesson: Aim to do good and to do great, not to do the impossible.
6. They utilize the power of diversity
Truly innovative companies don’t believe that male, pale, and stale alone is enough to create the broad range of ideas that innovation demands. Instead, the make sure to have a good mix of people on board, diverse not only when it comes to gender and ethnicity, but also when it comes to background, class, and age.
Lesson: Make sure you have a wide range of voices bringing up ideas, and make sure you listen to them all.
7. They see innovation as a journey, not a destination
If your company just tries to “create an innovation”, you may have lost before you started. The companies who truly get innovation realize it is a journey and a process, not a guaranteed outcome. You stumble, you innovate, you stumble, you continue.
Lesson: Humbly onwards.