Friday, September 14, 2012

Why you can't multi-task innovation

We were talking shop at the water cooler this morning, reminiscing about recent innovation project work.  One of our consultants described a recent idea generation session he led.

In this session, the CEO kicked off the morning describing the need for big, new Blue Ocean ideas.  Ideas that would really "move the needle".  A very senior VP who reports to the CEO also noted the importance of innovation and big ideas.  Everyone on the project team nodded sagely and were very engaged.  Once the work started and the CEO and senior VP left the room, everyone pulled out their laptops and cell phones and started responding to emails and voice mails.  Several took calls while nominally in the idea generation setting.  By the end of the first day the original team of 15 had been reduced to 12, as several people disappeared and weren't seen again.

Every participant in the room acknowledged the importance of ideas that create compelling new products, but had an exceptionally difficult time being 'present' in the room to generate ideas or develop ideas more completely.  As team members drifted in, and out, of the room they had to be constantly reminded of the reason for the event and the best ideas that had been discussed while they were away.

The failure of multi-tasking

In your regular job, you may be an expert at handling multiple tasks simultaneously.  You may be able to talk to a vendor on the phone while simultaneously writing an email while sitting in a meeting.  You may have enough knowledge and awareness to do all of those things well.  I doubt that is true, but let's stipulate that it is.

When you are trying to innovate, especially when you are trying to create new ideas that are unique or different from what your organization normally does, you cannot multi-task, you cannot dilute your engagement or awareness.  You cannot attempt to concentrate on day to day, routine tasks at the same time you are trying to create interesting new insights and ideas.  Your brain doesn't work this way, and you will be pulled in the direction of your expertise and competence.  Which means you will revert to incremental ideas at best.

Real creative insights happen when you release what you know, your expertise and frameworks, and focus on expanding your thinking and considering broader possibilities.  That kind of engagement and thinking cannot happen while you are answering emails on your cell phone, or while you are engaged on a conference call.  You simply don't have the expertise to handle routine, day to day issues and engage in broad, disruptive thinking at the same time.  One of these activities will suffer, and it is always the idea generation that goes lacking.

Firefighting is the focus

Unfortunately, the behavior we see is in direct correlation to what we reward.  People who rush in to solve problems at the last minute, like the superhero saving the damsel in distress, are always celebrated.  It's much harder to celebrate people who are doing deep thinking about the future of the business or the best new concepts to evaluate for new products.  Cell phones, laptops and tablets have made us more productive, but increasingly are making us slaves to the urgent over servants of the important.  If a team can't engage and focus on big opportunities and challenges for one day without losing a significant portion of the members to other "pressing" issues, then it cannot generate strong ideas internally, and will probably struggle to implement good ideas at all.

For some reason, firefighting and resolving small problems seems like "real work" and is valued and rewarded, while thinking up new revenue streams and new products that differentiate the company seems like a secondary activity that can be put aside at any moment.

Saying - Rewarding Gap

Paul Hobcraft and I wrote the Executive Workmat articles to describe what we call the "saying - doing" gap.  That is, we believe executives say they want innovation, but often fail to do the things necessary to help support and sustain innovation.  The issue I've described above details a "saying - rewarding" gap.  The CEO and senior VP asked for expansive, interesting, blue ocean ideas that would move the needle, but the members of the team responded by working on near term issues and crises rather than longer term interesting ideas.  Clearly the team believed that the incremental challenges and issues their teams face are more important and urgent than doing an excellent job thinking about the future of the company.  But these folks aren't rogue agents - they are simply doing what the organizational culture, society and their paychecks tell them to do.  They are rewarded and compensated for solving short term problems, not for generating long term solutions.

Getting Blue Ocean Ideas

How then do you get blue ocean ideas that change the needle?
  • Senior commitment - not just at the kickoff, but throughout the activity
  • Engaged people rewarded on the outcome
  • People willing to focus, completely and fully, on expansive thinking
  • The ability to relax or put aside corporate culture for a short time
  • Creative exercises meant to expand thinking and relax barriers
  • People fully present, fully committed throughout the activity
  • Leave the iPad, laptop, cellphone and other distractions in another room
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:54 AM


Blogger devil bug said...

Putting high level problem solvers into an uncharted realm is a problem. Since they solve problems and get rid of them they probably don't look for issues.
I've found that getting a small group of three in one place to discuss problems they can foresee finds different starting points for ideas. Instead of being limited by what management thinks they want we are free to explore into the unknown without any restrictions.

12:25 PM  

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