Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Norm can't innovate

I had the pleasure of speaking last week to a human resource executive roundtable.  What that means is that there were a number of HR and Talent Management executives sharing experiences and trying to gain more insight into innovation. The challenge that many of them face is that their CEOs are demanding more innovation, yet the people within the organization are simply not equipped to innovate.  That's not the fault of the existing HR or Talent Management staff however.  Mid size and larger organization have for years neglected to build innovation skills or capabilities in their employee base, preferring instead to focus on efficiency and productivity, reducing variance and eliminating waste. 

The challenge that many employees face then, when called on to innovate, can best be described through analogy.  Imagine, I told the roundtable, that you are an expert in a specific field of science, having dedicated your life to the acquisition of knowledge in your field.  Over the years your work has taken you deeper into your field, to the point where you can predict what is likely to happen and the work no longer challenges you.  You've given up everything else to focus on improving this narrow set of skills.  Then one day your executive comes to you and says "we need you to play right field for the New York Yankees on opening day. You've got a week to come up to speed". 

Sounds farfetched, right?  After all, no one who wasn't a practiced athlete could expect to start in any major league baseball game, especially not for the Yankees, without years of dedication and practice.  How could they be proficient, having never played the game, studied the strategy, practiced the various plays?  Isn't that an awfully high profile assignment, fraught with risk and almost doomed to failure?  But, now that we've described it, that sounds a lot like innovation work.

Why can't "Norm" or "Susan" or any other persona we'd like to create to represent people within your organization innovate?  Because they don't have exposure to the tools, haven't received any training.  But beyond tools and training, they don't have the muscle memory acquired from years of practice.  They don't have the "10,000" hours of experience Gladwell suggests is vital for expertise.  What we take for granted about star baseball players who seem so effortless is the thousands of hours of fielding and batting practice they've committed before they ever step into a minor league game, much less put on the Yankee uniform.  And yes, playing in the "show" - named that by the baseball players themselves - is a high profile, high wire experience.  You either compete at the levels expected - few errors, hitting above the Mendoza line, add value to the team - or you move back to the minors.

Why do we take people who've spent their careers in many cases pursuing efficiency, toeing the company line on risk and costs and short timeframes, who've literally built their career on succeeding within the model that's now limiting growth, and suddenly ask them to tear down everything they've built, to ignore all the scope and rules of several decades?  How do we expect them to be proficient using new tools and gaining new insights when they've never done the work before?  Norm and Susan are, in many cases, perfectly capable of doing excellent innovation work, but only when all of the "stars" align:  when the tools are familiar, when they've had a chance to practice and gain expertise, when the culture is supportive of innovation, when the compensation and rewards match the amount of risk they are asked to bear. 

You can't "train" your way to a more innovative staff.  You can't "change the culture" overnight.  You can't temporarily suspend the disbelief or resistance toward change and new ideas.  Well, you can do all of this once, but it won't sustain.  And sustained innovation is what most firms really need.  Norm and Susan can innovate, but only when your executive team does all of these things.  Skills development, training, cultural change, changing compensation and rewards, recruiting people with new skills, identifying people who are passionate innovators, giving them space to try, to learn and occasionally to fail. 

People are inherently creative.  Unfortunately our educational experience is focused on finding one right answer quickly, rather than encouraging exploration and divergent thinking.  Further, corporate focus on short term profits, cost cutting and efficiency reinforce narrow and repetitive thinking.  Any business can create an innovation engine, but it will start with convincing Norm and Susan to use the atrophied portions of their brains, and giving them the time and space to do that consistently.  Further it may mean recruiting people who don't fit the existing corporate model and who bring new perspectives to bear.  Being innovative isn't chance, it's a choice.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:19 AM


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