Fostering Innovation

Stephen DeAngelis

June 18, 2007

In response to my post “The Tension Between Creativity and Efficiency,” ZenPundit Mark Safranski wrote a very thoughtful blog entitled, “On Creativity in Organizations.” Included in Mark’s post is an interesting slideshare on “unleashing the creative beast in your team” entitled “Un-Managing.” I find creativity and innovation interesting areas to research. “While the focus in Steve’s post happened to be corporations,” Mark writes, “it is a paradigm that applies equally well to public education, the military, intelligence agencies, universities – basically any entity that has a legacy organizational structure. …  I agree with Steve that Six Sigma philosophy has it’s place, particularly in terms of final delivery of a service or good but it is ill-suited for maximizing potential productivity in the sense of generating that which is new. ”

Mark notes that inappropriately applying “zero defect” thinking can create unintended consequences such as:

* The emphasis shifts from finding new opportunities to not making mistakes:

This inculcates a “gotcha” attitude in middle-management and makes employees exceedingly risk-averse, conservative and uncommunicative ( when management is hunting for mistakes that will hurt your career, do you run to the boss with bad news. Or do you keep your head down ?). Moreover, employees don’t actually have to “be” productive so much as they need to “appear” productive, relative to the instruments by which their performance will be measured. This analytically reductionist perspective discourages a systemic approach.

* It creates a focus on the present process, not alternative pathways:

Maximizing the present and applying multiple measurement tools for individual performance leaves little time or resources for ” unproductive” time for speculation, experimentation or planning. People tack to where their incentives are. Moreover, in the hands of middle-management the measurement tools begin to replace common sense in terms of driving the setting of daily objectives and prioritizing the use of time. Independent thought is strongly discouraged.

As Mark correctly asserts, “Creativity required for innovation requires behavior that is inherently ‘unproductive.'” Such behavior can lead to tremendously productive outcomes, but creativity and innovation are fraught with false starts and dead ends. In fact, good innovative processes all incorporate stage gates where ideas are evaluated and, if necessary, killed before too many resources are spent pursuing bad ones. For an idea to remain on the path to implementation, decision makers need to ask the following questions about it: What are the criteria for staying the course? How long should a process go without obvious success before someone hits the kill button? How should the kill decision be made? The kill decision is not an easy one. “Slow kill” processes cost money (sometimes without providing any return) and delay implementation of other more promising ideas. On the other hand, “fast kill” processes discourage people from suggesting ideas in the first place.

In her slide show “Un-Managing,” Tara Hunt discusses a number of concepts including myths about innovation, conditions for innovation, and ways to kill innovation. The first myth she identifies is that there is always a “eureka” moment. Certainly such moments occur, but more often than not, innovation comes from hours of hard work not a single crystalline moment. Think about Edison’s long road to the light bulb or Dyson’s years of fiddling with his vacuum cleaner. The second myth is that there is a clear path to innovation. Innovation, in fact, is more like a maze with innovators trying numerous false leads before reaching their objective. The third myth is that people “dig” new ideas. Machiavelli wrote centuries ago, “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” The fourth myth is about the lone innovator. Tom Kelly, in The Art of Innovation, wrote:

“The myth of the lone genius can actually hamper [an organization’s] efforts in innovation and creativity. … Loners are so caught up in their idea that they are reluctant to let it go, much less allow it to be experimented with and improved upon. … If you distrust the power of teamwork, consider this fact. Even the most legendary individual inventor is often a team in disguise. In six scant years, for example, Thomas Edison generated an astounding four hundred patents, producing innovations in the telegraph, telephone, with the help of a fourteen-man team.”

The fifth myth that Hunt introduces is the belief that most people can’t be creative. Often creativity is a matter of technique. Once people are taught techniques that permit them to view challenges from different perspectives, they are surprised how creative they can be. This myth is one of the reasons that brainstorming was invented. The belief was that more ideas could be generated by groups than by individuals because hearing others’ thinking would stimulate new thoughts in all participants. Studies have shown, however, that people brainstorming in isolation then coming together to discuss ideas produce more and better ideas than teams trying to brainstorm together from the start. There are several reasons for this. First, of course, is fear. People fear that others will think their ideas are stupid so they don’t bring them up. A second impediment to brainstorming, however, is even more significant. People have difficulty holding on to one thought (which they must wait to bring up in a group), while trying simultaneously to come up with other ideas. Individual brainstorming doesn’t suffer from this problem. People are simply able to move from idea to idea without having to wait.

The sixth myth is that you’ll know innovation when you see it. There has been a lot of “serendipity discovery” that wasn’t obvious at first. It took a good deal of thought and discussion before people understood its potential. Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s difficult to think of alternative uses for something when one is on the quest to solve a particular challenge. Gunpowder was discovered while looking for a substance to prolong life. Penicillin was discovered while looking for an antiseptic based on nasal mucus. Teflon was discovered while looking for an alternative to Freon. That’s called stumbling into brilliance, but it still takes a lot of hard work.

The seventh myth Hunt points to is that the best ideas win. Almost all experts concluded that Betamax was better than VHS, but it didn’t win in the marketplace. Many IT gurus admit that Apple’s operating system is better than Microsoft’s, but Apple’s marketing strategy was not as good Microsoft’s. Good ideas require good implementation strategies and a bit of luck to come out on top. Good ideas also require a champion within a company to ensure, people often point to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center which developed things like the mouse, the Ethernet, and graphic user interfaces, which were all exploited better by others.

Hunt’s final myth is that innovation is always good. I recall a story about a Japanese vacation spot that believed its fortunes would improve if it was connected to Tokyo by high speed. The connection was built at great expense and to everyone’s surprise tourism decreased. When a poll was conducted to find out why, it turned out the new connection was too good. People had viewed the spot as a great “get away place,” and the fact that it was difficult to get there helped maintain that perception. When connectivity removed as an obstacle, it also removed the place’s charm.

As I noted above, Hunt also discusses ways to kill innovation. Destruction is always easier than creation. Perhaps I’ll tackle that subject in a later post.