For most organizations innovation is a struggle. The natural thing to do is to stay in the current state. The CEO preaches the need for innovation but people further down know that it involves risk, time, effort, cost, disruption and potential failure. In this contest innovation has some powerful friends and some dangerous enemies.
Let’s start with three of its most important friends, the VCC.
1. Vision. The most powerful friend of innovation is a shared vision of a better future. The leader and his or her team have to effectively communicate a common goal that people buy into. The vision has to be believable, aspirational, worthwhile and demanding. People in the organization must have faith in the vision and see that it involves a change that is worth making. Furthermore the staff must see that they have an important role to play in achieving the vision. They have to agree that the journey is worth undertaking, despite the uncertainties and hardships, and that the destination can be reached. Jack Welch of GE was a great believer in the power of vision and the need for the leadership team to constantly expound its benefits and importance.
2. Curiosity. The second friend is a culture of curiosity and challenge. Everyone should be encouraged to look for better ways to do things. We need an endless curiosity about why people buy or do not buy our products, about why we do things the way we do, about how we can make every system and service and method better. We need a culture where anyone anywhere can challenge the existing way of doing things in a constructive manner knowing that their ideas will be listened to. We should be inquisitive about how they solve our kinds of problems in different organizations, cultures and countries. There is always a better way to do everything we do and curiosity can help lead us there.
3. Courage. It is fine to have a great vision and a fruitful supply of creative ideas but nothing happens without the courage to act. There is always a long list of reasons why action should not be taken. We need to assess the options, consider the risks and then reach for our third friend, courage, to take the key decisions to move forward. Courageous leaders take calculated risks as they move the business forward. Not every bet succeeds so they must be brave enough to admit they made the wrong decisions on occasions.
1. Busyness. People are often so busy working on the day job that they do not have time for innovation. People are working hard. They are meeting their short-term objectives and do not want distractions. They do not assign space in their schedule for exploration, brainstorms, looking outside the organization or experimentation. The most innovative companies meet this challenge head on by allocating time for innovation. 3M have a famous provision allowing any engineer or scientist to spend 15% of his or her time on any investigation they fancy. Google and Genentech go further – every employee can spend one day a week researching any business issue that they consider of interest.
2. Bureaucracy. Many organizations have convoluted approval processes requiring multiple sign-offs for any significant change. Initiatives get mired with regulations and compliance requirements that slow things down to a crawl. Of course some checks and balances are needed but they need to be appropriate for the level of change and risk involved. Many procedures are too heavy duty. Shell overcame this problem in its Gamechanger program by allowing engineers to get sign-off on innovations from a panel of their peers rather than having to go to several higher levels.
3. Complacency. In his seminal book, Leading Change, John Kotter identifies complacency as the number one reason why change projects fail. Complacency is a particularly dangerous foe if the organization is successful. It undermines the need for change. We are doing well right now so why do we need to rock the boat? What is the best way to fight contentment with the status quo? By communicating the urgent necessity for change and the importance of the vision. Fighting complacency is one of the leader’s key tasks.
Busyness, Bureaucracy and Complacency (BBC) are the silent but deadly enemies of innovation. They must be confronted and vanquished if the organization wants to become more agile and competitive. If we want more innovation we need to support its friends and fight its enemies.