Innovation…Not!


We’re surrounded with calls for innovation in all sorts of businesses and organizations. The most reputable universities, the most dominant global consulting firms, and the most followed social media influencers are spinning out gobs content about “innovation.” I see the headlines and I “click!” I start to read the articles and the opening paragraphs excite me! But then I come to the “what-to-do” part. You know, the part that we scroll down to because we’re in a rush and we’re trained to expect that about 80% through the piece we’ll find the golden four-point take-away. All too often, I come to this “Show me the money” part…and it falls flat for me.

Goodness. So much enticing content about the holy grail of Innovation, and yet the “how-to” advice brings us back to familiar (and sadly stale) formulas. Defining a strategy…establishing mechanisms…building skills….crafting a business model…setting new priorities. OMG, are we kidding ourselves? We start off talking about “disruption” and “unleashing creativity” and “allowing failure” and “nourishing a culture of innovation” and then we wind up once again drowning ourselves in hum-drum tasks of analyzing and researching and training and directing. That ain’t innovation.

Good grief. We cannot plan and strategize our way to innovation.

Now I’m setting you up here. Can you sense it? Big talk from me, huh? “OK then,” you say to yourself. “If you’re so convinced this approach is so far off the mark, then what do we do to spur on innovation, Mr. Smarty Pants?”

Ok, so here goes:

  1. Use the strategy you already have. Take a hard copy of your already existing strategy or plan or whatever you happen to call it, and with a red pencil (or some other fun colored writing implement) mark those places where you already talk about “innovation” or something similar. Then also mark areas where you think you actually need to do more in the way of innovation. So you see, you’re not going to go off and waste a lotta time creating a new innovation strategy. Just look at where innovation is already embedded, and where it is lacking, in the strategy and plans you already have. That’s your focus.
  2. Use the talent you already have. You’ve undoubtedly already got people around who are known for creativity and innovative thinking. (If you don’t have any idea who they are or truly believe you have no one, well, I actually believe you ought to think on it more and you’ll have an answer.) Gather them together and ask them to brainstorm about how they do it. Sure they may have certain abilities that others don’t, but it’s very likely they have figured out how to make things work for them in your organization when they have a new idea. So often people hold themselves back for fear of speaking up, for fear of being turned back. They’re not lacking new ideas. So your existing innovators can offer advice that everyone else could draw from about being more innovative in your existing workplace context.
  3. Use the business model you already have. Innovation is about people and how they fully utilize their ideas and diverse experiences. Your business model doesn’t matter, for heaven’s sake. Within any business model people can finds ways to generate new ideas and act upon them. Sure, it’s true that your existing business model may pose some limitations to some innovations, but innovation can happen today in your organization, whether in small or big ways. So your action here is to simply agree on a principle: We Shall Not Wait to Change Structures, Systems or Policies Before We Allow Ourselves to Innovate. As the Nike people say, “Just do it.” If you want to be more ambitious, go ahead and identify possible barriers to innovation in your business model, and if there truly is low-hanging fruit then go ahead and address that. Otherwise, just work with the model as it stands. No matter the circumstances, innovation is possible.

What’s innovation really about? It’s about you and your people. The bottom line is that we’re talking about creating the safety, offering the encouragement, and providing the space and time for your people to draw upon their full range of talents and experiences. We’re talking about saying it’s OK to imagine, ideate and dream. We too rarely give ourselves and our colleagues the permission to do that. Innovation is about raw talents you have. It’s about a sense of calling you all have. It’s about the innate desire to play. We all have that. But we’re so tied to our list of tasks and so obligated to fulfill the twelve bullet points in our Job Description that we lack the moments of freedom to even be creative.

Innovation is not a strategy or a system or a skill. It’s the permission to use everything you’ve got to freely try out different ideas. That’s not hard to do. We just have to allow for it.