When Leaders Talk About Innovation, Always Be Skeptical

Declare yourself an innovation company and celebrate creativity, by all means. Then treat your employees to a little seminar in business history that emphasizes real-life time frames and the numbing necessity of trial and error, trial and error, trial and error. ~ Sir Harold Evans

In turbulent times beware the leader touting innovation myths. Myths like: If we just get the culture right and allow colleagues to, you know, be themselves and collaborate more and fail fast, everything will be OK.

Chris Bolton has written a great post on innovation urban myths, citing the invention of the 3M Post-It Note. The myth you’ll hear propagated at leadership conferences is that the Post-It was just a happy accident, a eureka moment when someone came up with a glue that wasn’t strong enough but was great for temporarily sticking bits of paper on walls.

Of course , as Chris explains, the Post-It story has been condensed into a pocket sized anecdote of what is a long and complex tale. It took 5 years of constant rejection for the new adhesive and another seven years in development (and a further phase of rejection) for Post-It notes to finally become a hit.

Most people in leadership positions do not know this story.

The story they know is:

If you get the culture right and allow people to make mistakes innovation will happen.

The true story is:

  • Innovation is a muscle that’s built over time – it doesn’t just happen by accident and the conditions for it need to be carefully curated.
  • Patience, and continued long term support is everything
  • Peer collaboration is vital for innovation and that needs management too

Yet there are scores of LinkedIn articles on a riff of “How Leaders Can Make Innovation Everyone’s Day Job” that seek to inspire confidence that the process of innovation is simply a recipe that needs following.

You can see why the ‘eureka moment’ stories spread – they are hugely powerful and full of drama and inspiration. But the act of creating or improving a product or service is far more often a long, hard, frequently boring slog.

Mainly this is because management just doesn’t get innovation. Managers got to where there are by managing well, not conjuring new things from discord.

So people tend to believe that the process for achieving breakthrough innovations is chaotic, random, and unmanageable, but as Noubar Afeyan and Gary P. Pisano write in HBR, this view is inherently flawed.

According to them the predominant strategy today is the “shots on goal” approach. That entails funding a large portfolio of projects in the hope that the profits from the rare success will more than pay for the cost of the numerous failures. If you invest in enough projects, the theory goes, by the laws of probability (sheer luck) you eventually will “score.” 

Instead they talk about ’emergent discovery’ defined as a rigorous set of activities including prospecting for ideas in novel spaces; developing speculative conjectures; and relentlessly questioning hypotheses.

This kind of discovery requires a culture of continual questioning, where it’s acceptable (even encouraged) to push back against the prevailing organisational dogma.

I don’t buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation but do believe that you can have a culture conducive to innovation.

For me that’s about four elements:

Just enough friction: where there are regular, intense debates. We can have unity of purpose and still disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure and dead ends through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

And all of this can only be managed in the long term. Embracing patience is the key to creating the conditions conducive to innovation.

Shorthand versions of innovation truth that ignore inconvenient facts permeate at conferences or in executive presentations. We promote an untruth that innovation is chaotic, random, and unmanageable and the result of lone visionaries. “If we are just crazy enough something great is bound to happen!”

Instead we need to move to a kind of emergent discovery of loosely managed safe to fail activities that explore ideas in novel spaces. And that takes time.

Related: When Everything Is A Crisis, Nothing Is