Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Making innovation a valuable habit

You may be thinking to yourself that the title of this blog post is boring, or even redundant.  Of course we want to emphasize valuable habits.  And innovation can lead to valuable outcomes.  But what about the "habit" part?  Aristotle noted something about his fellow humans.  He said that "you are what you repeatedly do".  He recognized that the more we do certain things, the more we followed certain norms, the more they influenced who we are and how we look at the world.  This is interesting in itself, but troubling from an innovation standpoint.  Because if we are what we repeatedly do, we'll never innovate.  If we are what we repeatedly do, we're all efficiency managers, not innovators.  That could explain a lot about the barriers innovation faces in large corporations.

What are your habits?

Habits actually have a somewhat negative connotation any way, like biting your nails.  People often talk about "bad habits" but rarely talk about "good" habits.  Many of the activities and actions we take every day become ingrained habits.  Getting coffee, chatting about the corporate culture over the water cooler, grabbing lunch with the same people, arriving ten minutes late for scheduled meetings, and so on.  After a while these habits become so ingrained that they become the norms.  In fact, in many corporations it's the kiss of death to schedule a meeting after 3pm, for a couple of reasons, but the most important one of which is that so many people arrive for meetings late that each subsequent meeting gets pushed back.  We all sit around and shake our heads about how terrible it is that people can't show up on time, but no one takes the responsibility to change the habit, and soon it becomes the norm.  These "bad habits" become what the corporation expects, and soon become the norm that we teach newcomers.  Eventually what were once simply bad habits become the norm.

If we are what we repeatedly do, then we ought to be the world's best meeting managers, cost cutters, time managers, pre-planners and efficiency experts, since most people in corporations spend time in meetings, cutting costs or corners, planning the next meeting and trying to figure out how to do more with less.  These habits become ingrained, and eventually influence how people think.  If you don't believe this, try asking people to generate really creative ideas that will violate their cultural norms.  It's actually funny to watch people squirm.

Innovation as a valuable habit

If more innovation is vital to most corporations, but people are ingrained with efficiency, how do we make innovation a valuable habit?  Well, first we need to create the conditions where innovation is possible.  That means that executives have to communicate the need for innovation and build the environment, and establish the compensation and rewards.  Once the environment is right we need to task people to innovate, regularly and consistently, so that innovation tools and processes don't seem strange and new, but seem trusted and familiar.  If we repeatedly "do" innovation, we will become more innovative, and more capable innovators.  If we repeatedly "do" efficiency, we will remain capable cost cutters who recoil from the implications of innovation.

First we need to make innovation intentional.  That's where the executives come in.  They must link innovation to corporate strategy and make it valuable and purposeful.  Then they need to demonstrate commitment, because that's what will help most of the folks overcome inertia and become willing to adopt new thinking and processes.  Finally, we need to do innovation regularly, so that it becomes a habit.  Only then will innovation be as easy, and as acceptable as doing the everyday business as usual.

There's real work in making this transition. For decades we've developed managers who are efficiency experts, and many of them have progressed onwards into the management ranks.  We've given innovation skills and training short shrift, and efficiency is the habit, not innovation.  It's time to rebalance skills and reset the framework, expecting both innovation and efficiency.  You won't have to worry about the efficiency part of the equation - it's already an ingrained habit.  You will have to focus on innovation, to make it a habit, and the only way to make it a habit is to do innovation often, consistently and repeatedly, using the same approach.  There's a word that describes that consistent approach and repeated usage.  You need to understand that innovation is a "discipline" that must be practiced regularly.

Almost 40 years ago the Doobie Brothers, of all people, released an album titled "What were once vices are now habits".  If we follow that logic, then it should be apparent that what were once habits are now cultural norms.  And once something becomes embedded in the culture, only a radical effort to refocus, repurpose and rework is going to change.  We need to create innovation habits that lead to innovation norms, rather than allow our cultures, habits and norms resist innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:43 AM


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