Thursday, March 21, 2013

Too busy to innovate

I've begun to wonder if the concept of innovation in large corporation is an exercise in pointless navel gazing.  And no, this isn't another bashing of brainstorming, or a recent conversion based on my experiences with faulty innovation logic.  No, the challenge to innovation is based on the recent development of a core strength: focus, efficiency, time management.  As businesses become more streamlined, more efficient, more time bound, there's ever less time for contemplation, exploration, and, God help us, simply thinking about concepts, needs and alternatives.  They are too busy to innovate.

I write this after visiting the office of a client recently.  I needed from her one fact, that only she seemed to possess.  But regardless of when I visited her office, early in the morning, mid-day or late in the afternoon, she was in a meeting.  In fact she ordered lunch to one meeting so she wouldn't waste time eating lunch.  I finally interrupted one of her meetings to simply ask for the data, which she gave me after apologizing for not being available.  When I left for the day she was still in meetings.  While she may seem extreme, she is not an isolated case.

We've been taught to manage our time, focus on what is important, stay occupied and stay in demand.  People who are constantly busy are hard to remove, while people who don't seem as engaged in day to day activities or whose capabilities or energies aren't focused on tomorrow's successes are often considered to be less useful or not contributing.  Once we are all fully booked every working hour in meetings, discussions and debates we'll finally be fully efficient, and almost as assuredly innovation will wither and die.

To many of these busy executives, innovation activities appear pointless in the short term.  Gathering customer needs, thinking about how the future will unfold, contemplating new competitive threats and emerging needs, generating ideas, these actions don't drive revenue tomorrow, and take up the time of people who could be gainfully employed doing other things.  I've written before that most organizations value firefighting over planning and avoiding problems.  Everyone will excuse a manager who must rush off to address a problem that in most instances probably could have been identified and avoided with some simple forethought.  Few firms award status to people who actively predict issues and work to avoid them in advance.  Everything about how we think about our organizations, their structures, their processes, their attitudes, their reward systems, focuses on the very near term, or worse, on a backward looking set of metrics.  There is far too little time and effort given to considering what comes next.

Einstein was a great physicist but also a great philosopher and innovation thinker.  Perhaps my favorite quote of his was about problem solving.  When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, he said he'd spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it.  Which is exactly opposite of what the vast majority of executives today would do.  Most of them would simply define a solution, implement it and have 15 minutes to spare for checking email.  In many organizations we undervalue exploration, thinking, empathy for customer and needs, contemplation, stillness.  We often need a "beginner's mind" but that requires leaving behind the expert's perspective. 

Good innovation almost always starts with noticing a problem or opportunity, contemplating a range of solutions, experimenting and interacting with those that have the challenge or problem, iterating a solution and then commercializing.  Most of us want to skip from noticing to commercializing, to speed a solution to market, without the contemplation, the thinking, the understanding necessary to develop a really interesting, compelling solution.  Our organizations and the corresponding corporate cultures have taught us to be busy, focused on deliverables, always engaged.  But this busyness leaves little time for the true drivers of innovation thinking.  We are simply too busy to innovate, and what's worse, we seem to enjoy the busyness over the contemplation necessary for innovation.  Like a man who starves to death in a bountiful land because he is too busy to plant, many businesses will wither because they were too busy to innovate.

With this speed and busyness comes a foreshortening of time.  Since we are so busy, we focus on the next activity, the next day, the next fire, postponing issues that are longer term, or require deeper concentration or contemplation.  The faster and more efficient a business becomes, the less it is able to think about innovation, and the more attuned it becomes to split second decision making, eventually making all decisions with no thinking whatsoever.  This model works as long as the markets and competitors agree to participate in the same race to the bottom.  As soon as one competitor stakes out a different business model that offers compelling services to customers, the jig is up.  Dell and HP found that out.  And their cultures and operating models simply cannot adjust fast enough because all they know is speed and efficiency.  Thinking and contemplation, understanding customers, doing things in a different way are simply not in their DNA.

Notice too that there is a happy medium.  Apple isn't exactly a slouch at good practices and efficiency, but has managed to marry good, efficient business practices with good thinking, contemplation and empathy for the customer.  We'll see if they can sustain both, as the pressures for ever more profit and ever more efficiency will weigh down on the profit models.  Recently, Yahoo has called in its remote workers, arguing that they need to be in the office to spawn more creativity and interaction.  I'm doubtful that's going to work, unless Yahoo sets aside time for people to think and contemplate.  Having more faces at meetings simply increases the number of people who think they need to speak, and will increase the number of meetings, which creates the need for more followup and more meetings until... well, you get the picture.  We need to break the cycle of efficiency, not to return to sloth and inefficiency, but to return to good management.  An executive who is constantly fighting fires and in meetings can't build the skills of his or her team or give adequate praise or feedback.  An engineer who is constantly engaged in designs or discussions can't think creatively about new products or desired features.  Everything gets watered down, reduced, compacted to the least common denominator when customers want the opposite - something interesting, new, different and relevant.

Modern business culture reads like a Jonathan Swift satire - managers too busy to eat, too busy to think, too busy to lead or manage.  Like a Modest Proposal, one day maybe manager and executives will exist only to meet and work in a never ending cycle of efficiency - no families, no hobbies, no homes, but constantly efficient and never innovative.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:36 PM


Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Worse yet, lack of innovation and the time necessary for self-reflection becomes the norm. Future managers and executives are indoctrinated into the process, and find themselves trying to innovate through group think.

This has become such an issue for me that I refuse most meeting invites, especially the ones without a clear agenda. If I can resolve an issue in a 15 minute face-to-face conversation or go for a walk during lunch to hash it out in my mind, that is always my preference.

I didn't get a graduate degree to be a better debater in meetings. Great article, great message.

3:44 AM  
Blogger TD Land said...

can i get an amen!

5:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shocking misinterpretation of Einstein's principles. Have you never read Einstein's letters to Roosevelt? While Einstein encouraged experimentation, he never suggested that "innovation thinking" was more important than "innovation doing." In fact, Einstein once wrote, "the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing." Einstein heralded everyday thinking as a means of simplifying and solving complex problems, not as an excuse to avoid taking action. Great ideas and products are not enough - you need to commercialize them. Commercialization is the tough part; the world is littered with great ideas, poorly implemented. Woe to those companies and innovators that dream, but never do.

9:34 AM  
Blogger shane o's said...

The central message is contemplation is under-valued in today's business culture and that's absolutely true. This problem is circular however. Some of the best contemplation I've ever achieved was a result of the white-heat of interaction and just plain experimenting.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Busyness is a trick to cause "good managers" to slip into what appears undervaluing exploration, thinking, empathy, contemplation and stillness. It is the "stillness" that must take place to help good managers to take hold of the "beginner's mind." This may be the first step to breaking the cycle of simple efficiency to place leaders back on the path to return to good management.

8:45 AM  

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