Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Innovation Invitation

You can read a lot of lists about innovation, things to do, things not to do.   John Kotter posted one recently about building innovation into your company's DNA.  There's nothing new in the list, but that doesn't mean it's not an important list.  What caught my attention is that he placed the concept of "invitation" at the top of the list.

What do you invite?  What do you permit?

In any organization, the corporate culture reinforces attitudes, beliefs and perspectives.  When a person considers the risk and work involved to create a new product or service (to innovate that is), he or she must consider what the response will be.  Does the organization permit innovation and its corollary outcomes (risk, variability, uncertainty)?  Does the organization resist these concepts?  What about the executive team?  What does it "allow", tolerate or invite?

Note that while Kotter's list is about organizational culture,  the points on the list aren't necessarily cultural in nature - they are in fact suggestions about how executives should act to influence the culture.  One could, in fact, create action verbs to suggest how executives should be involved in innovation based on this list:
  • invite innovation
  • join innovation
  • encourage innovation
  • learn from activities, successes and mistakes
  • model the behavior you desire
Again, little new here but worth a closer examination.  Replace "innovation" with any risky activity and the actions would be the same.

What does it mean to invite?

But take a closer look at "invite".  As the author notes, constantly requesting permission is arduous and costly for the person asking.  When we ask to pursue something risky or uncertain, we put not only ourselves and our ideas at risk, but we borrow some power or authority from the person we ask it from, placing them and their budgets and stature at risk.  Constantly having to ask for permission means that both the asker and the askee get worn down.  Constantly returning to the same sponsor for incremental approvals demeans the work and ensures the scope and effort will be reduced.

What if executives and the corporate culture "invites" innovation?  Or, perhaps, institute my personal mantra in this case:  Ask forgiveness not permission.  If we can trust our teams to conduct themselves in a manner that seeks the best for the company in their "regular" work, why can't we trust them to seek what's best for the company in innovation? If as executives you have concerns that the innovation teams will exceed their remit or explore ideas beyond the scope or strategy of the business, then your strategic goals and communication strategies stink.  Just as marketing and advertising are a tax for products that don't meet market needs, permission is a tax people pay for poorly defined and communicated strategy, or a lack of trust.

What the author fails to mention

When the author writes about innovation, she notes that if individuals are required to constantly ask for permission, they will tire of the activity and stop asking for permission.  But what I think she meant to add, or meant to imply, is that they won't simply stop asking for permission.  They will simply stop trying to innovate.  What's almost criminal about this action is that when innovation is critical to the success of the organization and must be done quickly and effectively, people who have stopped asking and stopped innovating approach the next innovation activity with far more skepticism and inertia.

We create our cultures through what we say, what we do, and what we reward.  If you don't invite innovation, your organization will still find opportunities, but the people seeking permission will soon find it difficult to accomplish anything.  Then, the learned behavior sets in to wait to be directed to innovate, rather than to actively and constantly seek new ideas.  You create the learned behavior your organization models and reinforces.  Do you invite innovation, or do you require people to seek permission?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:18 AM


Blogger James Lawther said...

Interesting Jeffrey, though I'd go further.

Many of the organisations I have worked for actively punish and cover up failure.

Which in many ways is the opposite of inviting innovation


10:55 PM  
Blogger Quality Alchemist said...

Dear Jeffrey,
I like your description "making things better (quality) versus making better things (innovation)".
Based on your idea, could I said the integration of quality and innovation is to "making better things better"?

7:44 AM  
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