May 28

Anybody who has worked for a company for any reasonable length of time has probably had the “we must be more innovative” line thrown at them (or forced down their throat) many times.  The argument usually goes along the lines that for company “X” to remain competitive, gain market share or enter new markets they somehow must be more “innovative” (or “disruptive”, in hipster speak).  But what exactly does this mean, and why do most companies struggle with it?  Even Apple, which is considered to be at the forefront of innovation is beginning to show signs of weakness in the face of what appears to be more innovative rivals.  Is Apple becoming less innovative, or are their competitors (Samsung) simply becoming more innovative?

The Business Dictionary has a long winded definition of “innovation”, which is probably half the problem.  A much more appropriate definition is “the act of introducing something new”.  That’s a pretty broad and vague definition, but that’s because innovation is hard to define and is only really obvious long after the fact, especially in a business environment.  Facebook was certainly innovative, but not at its inception when it was simply a method for students at a single university to keep in touch.  What makes Twitter so innovative?  It’s hard to say, since Twitter can just be thought of as a hugely scaled down version of Facebook.  What was so innovative about the iPhone?  Nothing really stands out, but the sum of the parts revolutionized the communications industry.

So, how do companies try to become more innovative?  Sadly, in most cases, the way they do that is to ask the staff to submit ideas for improving some metric (usually profit).  Why is this a bad idea?  Simply because you can’t add “be innovative” to a job description and expect it to just happen.  To make matters worse, these nicely documented ideas (red tape is a sure innovation killer) are then “evaluated” by the same people that asked for the innovative ideas and couldn’t come up with them on their own.  To put it bluntly, if you’re not the innovator then you probably wouldn’t recognize an innovative idea if it stuck its fingers up your nose!  Ideas that sound good to run of the mill management people are rarely innovative, since obvious ideas are, well, obvious.  Most companies operate on the premise of safe innovation (there’s no such thing) and best practices (a euphemism for average) so true innovation scares the crap out of them and won’t happen.

Okay, so we’ve established that you can’t just demand innovation and that most companies just don’t have it in them to be truly innovative; what can be done about it?  Unless you’re a government department you’re going to have to find a way to innovate (read: scrap best practices and be better than average) or simply become obsolete (you’ll be in good company).  Here’s the kicker.  Innovation isn’t a job description, a title, or a duty.  It’s a culture.  Read that again and let it really sink in. Innovation is a culture.  You can’t set aside an hour a day, or Fridays to be innovative.  You have to be innovative all the time, it’s simply a way of life.  Sure, you can set aside specific times to actually implement or hash out ideas, but the inspiration can hit at any time and your working environment must be conducive to that.  This leads to the obvious question: How does one create an innovation friendly working environment?  It’s actually surprisingly easy, and difficult at the same time.  You need to have less control and more trust.  This is easy because it leads to less micromanagement (an out-dated concept if there ever was one) but giving up the control, associated metrics and more importantly, the position of authority, is incredibly difficult for most managers.  This isn’t to say that all control must be given up and chaos allowed to reign, all in the hope that some good idea will crawl out of the woodwork and match some random business objective.  The opposite is, in fact, true.  You need to increase visibility across all related areas of the company so that employees can get a detailed big picture of where they fit in.  This will allow them to see and influence the effect that they have on the rest of the company.  This takes effort, but the end result is employees that know which wheels their cog turns and how to optimize for the whole and not just the part.  That is just part of creating a culture of innovation though.  The main part is trust.  You need to allow people to come up with ideas and to implement them.  Please note that I’ve linked coming up with the idea and the implementation.  The absolutely worst thing that you can do is to take the idea away from the originator, mangle it with your own half-baked ideas, and then hand it off to someone else to screw up.  Leave the damn idea with the originator and let them see it through to completion (unless it’s a really stupid idea or really impractical).  Ownership is extremely important to people and most companies push the idea of ownership, but in reality they mean ownership of failure and quickly subvert anything that looks like it might be successful.  Am I being too harsh?  Maybe, but just take my word for it, let innovation flow and don’t impede it.

Managers are probably feeling very nervous now.  How do they control things, allocate time and resources, make sure the right things are being worked on etc.?  It’s quite simple actually; the way you’ve always done it.  As I said before, innovation requires a culture change, not a process change.  Certain processes are, however, more conducive to innovation.  Coming up with new ideas is implicitly risky.  Most ideas don’t pan out and need to be ruthlessly culled, but they only way to do this is to implement them as quickly as possible and discard failures as soon as possible.  This leads to another cultural identity – a culture of failure.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that failure is encouraged or accepted, just that failure is inevitable and should be managed like everything else.  Agile and Lean methodologies are particularly supportive of this type of culture, where ideas are quickly iterated to determine their viability.  Being a leader in any industry is difficult and requires constant innovation.  If you want to be like Apple, don’t be stupid and try to copy Apple.  You don’t want to be like Apple, you’re probably in a different business so their metrics don’t apply to you, or if you are in the same business (sorry for you) then you want to do things differently to compete.

To summarize then.  If you want to foster innovation, do the following:

  • Trust your employees
  • Throw your employees in the deep end
  • Be transparent
  • Let go of the reins
  • Don’t punish failure (control it)
  • Give people the tools that they need (training, books, software, whatever.  Create a budget for this)
  • Give equal weighting to all ideas
  • Don’t remove ownership of ideas
  • Remove obstacles
  • Keep employees happy

If you’re only going to take one thing from this, makes sure it’s the fact that innovation is about the person, not the idea.  If you invest in the people the ideas will flow.  If you try to invest in the ideas only then the people will become disillusioned and wander off.

written by Paul Mason \\ tags: ,


One Response to “Why is innovation so difficult?”

  1. 1. Luke Venediger Says:

    You’ve hit on the key attribute that, if not present, will stifle innovation no matter what the environment: Trust. A good culture starts out with the assumption that everyone is trying to do good work, and that they want to make things better for their customers. With this as a core value, developers are given the vote of confidence (and the freedom) to start adding real and significant value.

    My stance on the relationship between builders (developers) and demanders (BAs, managers) is one where the developers are the product owners and everyone else is a customer. The development team is obligated to meet the needs of their customers through delivering good quality software on a regular basis. They are also responsible for making sure that what they’ve delivered actually meets their customers’ needs.

    The corollary to this is that the development team has the final word in deciding what to work on – not the BAs, not the managers, not even the end user. It sounds counter-intuitive (who wouldn’t take instruction from their customers?) but if the development team is customer-focused then they will prioritise the work according to customer demand. The key is that, as the product owners, the development team can see everyone’s demands in context and plan for internal and external enhancements to meet future needs.

    So how does innovation fit in? Well, there’s no escaping the fact that we (developers) have a responsibility to our customers – first and foremost. But by bringing control of the roadmap back into the hands of the builders we gain the freedom to innovate on things that will bring benefit to the customer. I’m talking about new features, system improvements, automated deployments, tools for support, self-service tools for external QA – everything is fair game. So long as the builders have the autonomy to drive their own products forward and the responsibility of putting their customers first, they will innovate as a means to an end.

    And lastly, to trust is to empower, to micromanage is to fear.

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