Innovation without chaos

In response to the question “can you teach innovation?” I wrote that no, you can’t. It is better to consider innovation a label that is attached to an outcome or result. You can, however, create the environment and encourage an attitude that will enable innovation to happen.

But is that all there is? If you’re talking about an individual or a small start-up then it may be sufficient. However, for many established businesses the reality is a lot more complicated. If you just create the environment then you run the risk of unleashing chaos – innovation may happen but it may do more harm than good.

Part of establishing the environment is having clarity on what is possible and what will need more thought. In this, you need to resist the temptation to turn innovation into a process that needs to be followed. It’s become popular to refer to guardrails as the softer boundaries and this may be something that works for your context.

It’s also beneficial to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. If innovation is a label given to a positive outcome then we need to be careful to differentiate when something has been noisy disruption and when it has made a valuable difference. Disruption to an existing process can be a useful trigger for innovation occurring but it should be used with caution.

Whilst you can’t teach innovation you can provide the guardrails that empower people to bring about change. It’s also useful to take a systems-thinking and design approach. This helps to avoid the unintended consequences of change in one area or process having a negative impact elsewhere.

Another obstacle that can come up is knowing who can make decisions about change. Again, the temptation is to fall back on the governance processes that large businesses have come to depend on. This rarely works (in truth, it more often gives the illusion of control than anything meaningful) and if you create friction then small incremental gains are likely to be lost.

It’s counter-intuitive but by letting go of more control you can start to minimise the risk. Having more people work in the open, share the work they are doing and challenging the silo mentality that leads to things being “owned” by individuals and teams are some of the enabling behaviours which will help.

Just as the lone individual is unlikely to come up with innovative ideas on their own, so the successful change is unlikely to happen just in one part of the organisation. Everyone should be encouraged to participate and raise their concerns. Too often the drawbridge comes up because people don’t like seeing others succeed or being given the suggestion there could be a better way of doing things. This applies to most changes – we reduce the load in one area because that’s the scope of our metrics and ignore the increased load that is created, often at a higher cost, elsewhere.

Alongside working in the open then it’s great to encourage challenge and build for ideas. Not only do you learn early the potential pitfalls but you can also build the engagement that will make the change more likely to succeed. Ideas work best when they flow across the business not up and down the chain of managerial hierarchy. As a manager in that flow, you have a responsibility to break the chain and empower those around you.

This then touches on another obstacle that comes up. People can see that there is a better way for something to be done but there are too many barriers to overcome. Determined people only stay that way for so long before being worn down by the red tape. As a leader (and manager) then I’ve always believed one primary activity is to create the conditions that enable others to be successful. If the ideas have stopped coming, if the change improvement is drying up, if people are no longer talking about how the future could be better then it’s time to act.

Just as someone in the hierarchy chain needs to break the flow and allow cross-pollination so they also need to use the position they hold to sponsor change not just approve it. Approval rarely costs again. Sponsorship involves putting your name to something, using your position to influence others, to talk positively about the opportunity and why you believe in it. I accept it shouldn’t be necessary for this to happen, and even if it isn’t, then it can be a shortcut to getting good ideas accepted quicker. If you have the privilege then you should be looking to maximise it for the benefit of good ideas.

Creating an environment that fosters innovation isn’t about creating free-for-all. There is still a business objective to achieve and work still needs to be done. Giving focus to the innovation can happen without having to introduce control. Empowering those closest to the decision to act in the best interest of the customer and achieving the business mission will help. A culture of trust rather than silos and suspicion will minimise the risk of unintended consequences.

Leadership and mindset are critical to taking an innovation-friendly environment and channelling that creativity for a positive impact on business performance.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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