Innovation, in all of its facets and complexities, is really about making choices. What we do so casually each day of our lives becomes significantly more difficult in the context of innovation. What is innovation if not an intertwined series of choices? For example:
- Executives choose to identify a market need that demands innovation
- They choose an individual or team to pursue innovative solutions
- That innovation team chooses to use innovation tools or techniques to discover new ideas
- The team chooses how to rank or evaluate its ideas
- The team selects (or chooses) its favorite ideas
- The team recommends ideas to an executive, who chooses the ideas that seem best
- The corporation chooses to prioritize (or not) the ideas in the product development process
Every Day Work
For many people, when they arrive at work they don't have a lot of choice. They may get to decide when to do certain activities, or how much attention to pay to certain issues, but they must take up their work every day. Whether that is processing invoices, winning new customers or building products, the every day work must get done, and done reasonably well. That's not a choice - it's a requirement. As the demands increase and resources fall, the every day work becomes paramount, and it becomes difficult to choose to do anything else. And, as we've said, innovation is a choice.
When time is tight and resources are slim, making the choice for innovation is a risky proposition. There's a strong probability that choosing to spend time on innovation activities will detract from the every day work, which has very short term demands and rewards. Unless people are given the freedom to choose to work on innovation, removing some of the obstacles and ensuring longer term rewards, very few people will consciously make the choice. Every day work is too familiar, too ingrained and too easily linked to rewards and compensation.
Freedom to Choose
If we want innovation, we need to recognize that it is a choice, and one that many people aren't willing to make within the confines of existing culture, process and reward systems. Until people are truly free to choose to work on innovation, all the training, all the tools and all the communication doesn't change the basic fact: if people don't feel they have the right to choose innovation, or are concerned about the negative outcomes if they do choose innovation, they won't choose it.
The range of choices
What's interesting about innovation is how many intentional, proactive choices have to be made in order for it to succeed. For every day work to get accomplished, few choices are required. For innovation, everything becomes an uncertain choice. Who gets assigned? How much research or investigation should they conduct before creating ideas? What's the correct scope? How many people are necessary? How much must we invest? All of these questions force choices and decisions, and in most cases the natural implication is to say "as little as possible" to all of them. Inclinations, brought on by years of cost cutting will reduce scope and reduce investment, which inevitably leads to cramped, incremental ideas. What innovators need is a clear range of choices. If all the choices are limited, there is no choice and little hope for interesting ideas.
The knowledge economy
Conceptually, we live in a new era framed by the knowledge economy. This should mean that our workers are more educated, and more familiar working with and creating information and knowledge. They should be less constricted to familiar patterns and processes, since there's less rote process and task following. But so far in this innovation "bonanza" we are living through there's very little blossoming of innovation broadly across industries or geographies. We continue to hold up a handful of companies as the models for innovation, while the vast majority of companies struggle along in a choice constrained, innovation constrained muddle. If we believe in our employees, believe in our strategies and believe we are truly in a knowledge and information economy, we need to provide far more choice and permission to release the bonds that hold our people back, and allow them to make intelligent choices to create more innovation.
The choice is yours
Yes, it's a tired and hackneyed phrase but it also has the benefit of being true. Innovation is a series of choices, starting from the top to engage innovation in a company and culture, and making that choice "safe" for people to pursue. It's about allowing people the opportunity to make choices, trusting that they understand the goals and strategy of the organization, and can bring that knowledge to bear to create interesting new products. It's about providing permission for people to make choices, experiment and discover, even to make the occasional mistake. Until executives make those choices, little true innovation will happen. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. You can teach a person to innovate but you can't force her to think. You've got to make choices that provide clarity about your goals and provide permission and opportunity for people to make choices to drive innovation.