Monday, July 08, 2013

What Goldfish teach us about innovation

I wanted to write today about "context" and the importance context plays when teams attempt to innovate.  You'll be familiar with the phrase "like a fish out of water" - implying that the fish is in a new and unfamiliar context, and unlikely to succeed.  Not only is the fish in a new and unfamiliar context, it also faces risks, in that it can't obtain oxygen from the air in the same manner that it can from the water.  Not only is the context unusual and unfamiliar, for the fish it can be deadly.  I want to describe why this experience is exactly the same as what many innovation teams face, without the fear of physical death.

Getting out of the box

I've written previously about the phrase "thinking outside the box", so let's imagine that we are the proverbial fish for just a moment.  Goldfish to be exact.  Goldfish spend their days in small bowls with the fake seaweed, treasure chests and divers, always looking out at the world around them.  As long as they stay safely ensconced in their bowl of water, they are comfortable and content.  Since the bowls are transparent, goldfish even have the chance to observe the world around them.  That is, they witness people existing out of the context of water, and even have a few close encounters with people or cats who occasionally try to snatch the fish from the water.  But when push comes to shove, and the fish ends up on the countertop, instead of in the bowl, weeks, months or years of observation aren't helpful when there's no water to help the fish breathe.  In other words, you can watch others perform at a high skill level in a context they are familiar with, but that does not imply that you'll operate with a high degree of success when you are placed in that context, regardless of the amount of time you've watched or the books you've read.

Tick Tock

And, like the fish, once you are out of the familiar context, the clock starts.  A fish out of water can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes before death sets in.  No matter how many times a goldfish witnessed a human standing just outside the bowl, nothing prepared the fish to exist outside the bowl.  Similarly, a new innovation team has little time before the rarified air of an innovation activity begins to make breathing and thinking difficult.  Not because the air lacks oxygen, but for two compelling reasons:
  1. Teams recognize their lack of preparation and the absence of familiar context and become anxious
  2. Executives compound the anxiousness by demanding quick results
When anyone is placed in an uncertain, unfamiliar environment and asked to perform at a high level, the level of anxiety increases.  As anxiety increases, team members quit working and attempt to return to a safe, comfortable environment.  When we apply this to innovation we see that many teams simply pick the path of least resistance - choosing ideas that are very similar to existing products or services that can be quickly and easily deployed.  This selection allows them to return as quickly as possible to their preferred context, even if innovation goals aren't quite achieved.   Executives often don't help in this regard, demanding rapid results as quickly as possible.

Emergency stations

To add insult to injury, fish don't leave the water and innovation teams aren't in demand until an emergency arises.  If the lack of context isn't enough, much innovation happens only when the stakes are the highest.  Fish don't leave the water unless they have to or are forced to.  Innovation teams face the added pressure of finding a solution to an emergency, while working under time constraints and in an uncertain and unfamiliar context.  Research shows that most people under extreme stress focus only on the immediate solutions at hand and ignore other data or evidence.  People under extreme stress make the wrong decisions when all the data is reviewed in hindsight.  Just as a fish flops from one side to another, trying desperately to return to water, people rush back and forth to find a fast solution to emergency situations, rarely giving the issue the consideration it needs.

Innovation in many firms is a story of people who are unprepared to leave a comfortable context who are asked to design and create unusual and valuable concepts under significant time and resource constraints while under high anxiety and questionable reward structures.

Innovation Business As Usual

I wrote in Relentless Innovation that we need to move from operating models focused solely on efficiency to operating models that incorporate both efficiency and innovation - creating an innovation business as usual operating model, where innovation is part of the "context" of everyday work.  Teams won't be good innovators by watching others, or reading books about innovation, but must become accustomed to the different environments presented by innovation.  They must acclimate themselves, just as the first fish that slowly began to breathe air did over time.  They must gain skills in the new roles and tasks assigned to them, or they will revert to their old tools and methods, which are comfortable and familiar.  And they must be able to work in a fashion that indicates that success is measured by outcomes not timeframes.

The good news is that unlike the fish that evolved to breathe air, our innovation teams can evolve and become comfortable in different contexts far more quickly, but only if they are allowed the time to adjust and acclimate, only if their rewards and compensation encourage them to do so, and only if they are provided with the tools necessary to succeed in the new context. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:52 AM


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