Friday, February 01, 2013

Pay attention!

You want to know what the biggest input gap is where innovation is concerned?  Want to know what really matters when you are starting an innovation initiative?  Did the bright sparkly pop-up advertisement steal your attention in the last 20 seconds?  Did your email notification sound while reading this blog?

Pay Attention

Perhaps the biggest gap between knowing and doing innovation is what I call the attention gap.  It is evident throughout all layers of the organization, across all industries and functions.  People need to pay attention to innovation.

The problem is our business as usual entity functions fairly well in the background, and we've lost the rationale to pay attention to anything for any significant period of time.  The biggest compliment you can pay to anyone in business today is to actively, completely pay attention to what they say. That means shutting out the day to day distractions, the "fires" that constantly pop up, the incessant demands from social media, the phone, email, Twitter, instant messaging and a hundred other constant interruptions.  Undivided, consistent, engaged attention - what some people call "being present" is the most valuable commodity for engagement, change and innovation in any organization.  And, unfortunately, that commodity is overly committed to efficiency, easily distracted by short term needs and often in very short supply.

Executive Attention matters

Let's start at the top.  Executive attention matters.  If what gets measured gets managed, then what gets executive attention gets focus from the rest of the organization.  While many initiatives can be "signed off" and then delegated to the appropriate leader or team without fear of distraction or delay, innovation needs consistent executive attention to succeed and flourish.  There are simply too many uncertainties and unknowns prevalent in innovation work to delegate innovation and lose executive attention.  And we know how valuable and rare deep executive attention can be.  What do the executives in your business pay attention to?  What captures their attention?  If it isn't innovation, then innovation won't capture the attention of the rest of the organization.

Middle Management Attention matters

If executive attention matters and is crucial for success, middle management attention is ultimately decisive and vital.  That's because while executives propose, mid-management disposes, to paraphrase another saying.  No matter what the executives detail and delegate, the middle managers are the ones who determine what initiatives receive high priority and resources, and which circle slowly in a backwater, never quite dead yet never quite alive.  Middle managers can't afford to be distracted from efficiency and predictability, their attention is completely focused on these criteria, until an executive who is paying attention tells them otherwise.  And not a one time suggestion or directive but a consistent interaction to signal that a middle manager must pay attention to innovation activities and prioritize them accordingly.

We pretend to work

There was an old saying in the Soviet Union about work commitments.  It went something like this:  They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.  If executives won't commitment limited and valuable attention to innovation, in the form of their time, their energy and they vision, and if middle managers can't find time to pay attention to innovation and don't want to take their eyes off the efficiency engines, why oh why would anyone else in an organization expect anyone else to pay attention to innovation.  There's a reason many innovators often earn the title "mavericks" - its because they are often a lonely voice in the wilderness trying to draw attention (there's that word again) to new and different realities.

If executives can't or won't pay attention to innovation, and if middle managers can't be bothered to glance away from short term crises and the efficient engines they've created and sustain, no one else is going to pay attention either.  In fact perhaps one of the best methods to move up in an organization is to mimic the behavior that your management team demonstrates.  If paying attention to innovation isn't important to them, why should it be important to anyone else?

The Innovation Inbox

In my innovation heart of hearts I imagine the creation of an innovation inbox - a place so compelling, that refreshes so quickly and demands so much attention that it distracts people from other, less pressing mundane work.  Now, can we create an innovation activity that is as compelling as your email inbox, that attracts and retains attention like a short term crisis and is important enough to demand a lot of your attention? 

Of course not.  We could create constant crisis, like "burning platforms" that pop up and are extinguished, but they wouldn't sustain over time.  What is urgent is not a momentary, short term set of innovation emergencies but a long term cultural change to refocus attention to what is important.  What does your team pay attention to?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:03 AM


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