Are we pushing innovation too far?

Organisations must transform themselves to thrive. This is where innovation comes in.

It’s a powerful process where abstract thinking, creativity and technology meet existing problems.

But as with all powerful processes, it comes with great responsibility. Why?

Because it’s possible to push innovation too far. And it all comes down to how you position it with your people.

So how should you position innovation?

What is it and what is it used for?

Organisations must get more productive over time. This is fundamental to free markets, competition and economic growth.

The first way to improve productivity is evolution: constant, small improvements to the status quo. This should happen every day in organisations. It’s the cogs of the machine turning.

Secondly is transformation. Replacing the status quo with something newer and better. This is not business-as-usual and requires focus. That’s where innovation comes in.

Innovation drives the what, why, how and when of transformation. It puts the status quo to one side and considers the problem in a vacuum.

It looks at what is possible. Indeed it’s hard to come by. If you can transform your organisation through innovation, you’re more likely to beat the competition.

And that’s why organisations love it. It’s harder to get ahead nowadays and it offers a solution. 

Creativity generates the ideas. Innovation tests them.

But innovation goes further. Because innovation deals with real-world problems it looks at performance and development of ideas.

But, I said we could be pushing innovation too far … because every reward has a cost

Our health and wellbeing

Innovation stress is a decline in individual wellbeing due to the need to consistently and constantly push.
But why should innovation be a source of a unique type of stress?

Unless you’ve been trained, to innovate is to operate without rules. You don’t know when you’re finished. When you’re right. If your thought processes are good. There’s no immediate feedback.

Organisations are rarely prescriptive when they ask people to. And so, innovation’s biggest selling point – unrestrained potential – can quickly become a burden.

Staring at a blank page is, after all, pretty scary.

The means becomes the end

It isn’t always the best solution. Sometimes problems are tiny nails and innovation is a sledgehammer. Sometimes evolution is good enough.

But if organisations put it on a pedestal and send the message that novel ideas trump impact, people may naturally flock to innovation.

And if they do, you may get an over-engineered solution, which will cost more and be less effective. 

You can innovate out of efficiency

The opposite of innovation is exnovation. Organisations that practice exnovation put structures in place to prevent innovation.

Why would you want this to happen? Historically it’s to prevent best-in-class processes going through further innovation.

This makes sense. If your existing process is light years ahead of the competition, the only way is down (at least temporarily).

It also makes sense if your best-in-class process is complex but stable, such as manufacturing processes for cars. Innovating in one area may destabilise the whole thing.

How to keep it working for you

1. Take it off the pedestal

In some organisations, innovation develops a mythical quality.

It sits at the top of the pedestal, its god-like status underpinned by its treatment by senior leaders as a superior form of problem-solving.

To prevent this happening, make sure you value impact over novelty. Don’t give era-defining examples of innovation as the yardstick. Make them realistic and relevant.

And always make sure you bucket innovation with other forms of problem-solving.

2. Provide tools and guidance

Without a toolbox, to innovate is to wander into the unknown without a guide.

And yet innovation works best with a toolbox, with rules, frameworks, tools and methods. Just like any other creative process.

So give your people a well-packed innovation toolbox: it will keep them focused and reduce stress.

Start with the ‘three ifs’, the difference between divergent and convergent thinking and the methods available to test the value of new ideas.

3. Focus on the goal and keep the brief tight

Abstract problems attract abstract solutions. The limitless potential in innovation and the lack of innate rules means abstract solutions easily come to the unfocused mind.

So keep goals as tangible as possible. Make your brief crystal clear and keep expectations high.

And don’t give innovation special treatment. It may give you the best solution. But it may not.

It’s the most appropriate idea you’re ultimately looking for, not what got you there.

Creativity is innovation’s cousin. But you may be surprised at just how creativity works in practise.