Monday, September 12, 2016

Confusing innovation with outcomes

I've been involved in an interesting Facebook chat around the definition of a startup, which has coalesced my thoughts on the approach of organisations towards innovation.

Innovation has become a buzzword in the last few years, with both corporations and governments focused on the notion that they need innovation to remain effective and relevant.

I've been fundamentally uneasy with a lot of the views expressed around this notion. From the Australian Government's '#ideasboom' to the notion that appointing an Innovation Director who in some way takes 'ownership' of innovation for an organisation, will solve an organisation's competitive and cost-efficiency challenges.

I also have my concerns about the ideation processes springing up across government and the private sector.

It's great to see the flood of ideas and the unclogging of the old-fashioned 'suggestions box'. However these processes need to be well-supported with training and capability to assess the ideas and then help people to realise them in practical trials, to really determine which really do solve problems or improve outcomes.

Don't get this wrong - I'm a big proponent of innovation.

The process of identifying a problem (that often others do not see), of finding a new solution (whether involving old or new technology) and of then testing and trialling that solution until it becomes clear whether it's an improvement or not is essential to every organisation who wishes to continue to exist.

However focusing on the ideas and innovation is a confusion of process and goal.

Ideas and innovation are tools to solve problems. They are not ends in themselves.

Ideas are a thousandth of a bitcoin a dozen and anyone who sets out to 'innovate' is starting with the wrong end of the stick - the process, not the desired outcome.

Instead organisations should focus on the other end, the problems, preferably invisible and painful ones. They can be considered 'big' or 'small', this doesn't matter - what matters is that there's significant pain caused by it, and significant benefit to solving it. Solving a problem that costs every employee only 5 minutes each day will save an organisation with 1,000 people 416 hours per week - the equivalent of ten staff, or 1% of their headcount.

Often the best problems are invisible to most people in the organisation, they simply work around the problem, using manual steps to bridge processes, walk the long way around an obstacle and eventually forget that it is there.

'Managing' the problem becomes part of the basic experience, the social norm, of working there, just like the example in the video below - and very few question it.


The real innovator is the person who both thinks - why is that obstacle there? AND then acts to remove it.

A simple test that can be performed in any organisation is to put a chair with a sign 'Please do not move' on it in the middle of a regular walkway.

Look at who walks around the chair, versus those who complains about the chair being there, versus those who actually take an action to remove the chair as an obstacle.

You want people who are prepared to address the obstacle on your problem-solving team. They are the people prepared to ask 'why is this so' (identifying the problem), then experiment with potential solutions to remove the problem from the equation.

For organisations that wish to set a higher bar, change the sign to read, ''Please do not move. By order of the CEO - this area is monitored by CCTV'.

Now you'll really find out who is willing to take a risk to achieve a better outcome.

Ideas and innovation remain critical tools for problem-solving, and fostering both within organisations is critical, but avoid the trap of confusing them with the improved outcomes that their use is designed to achieve.

Treat them as tools, not goals and avoid building complex systems and hierarchies around who is 'allowed' to use them within an organisation.

Everyone in your organisation has ideas. Everyone can innovate. Not everyone can identify the problem, visualise a better outcome and use ideas and innovation as tools to turn that visualisation into reality.

Use ideation processes and Innovation Directors to foster an environment where problem-identification and solving is the social norm for your organisation.

To foster an environment where the reaction to a new problem or inefficiency is to take action to address it, trying different approaches until the optimal solution is found, rather than to kick it upstairs, ignore it or simply 'walk around' it with more staff and expense.

The most successful organisations - public and private - will be those that foster active problem-solving, not nebulous 'ideas' or 'innovation'. Those that remain clear on what are the goals and what are the tools.

1 comment:

  1. Horray, I'm helping!

    Yes active problem-solving over ideas, and not an end in itself. That's why I talk about 'design thinking' if necessary but more usually about 'human-centred problem-solving' or 'creative problem-solving disciplined through a user focus'. But a lot of organisations, public or private, are instead solutions looking for a problem. So I can see the advantage of calling it out, too.

    Perhaps some of the issue here is that everyone is now obsessed with 'disruptive innovation'. Before digital went gangbusters there was a distinction between improvement (doing what we do now better) and innovation (getting better at doing new things) . Now everything has to be 'innovative' and the conceptual rigour and clarity is missing.

    Be that as it may - do you not think it is better that an organisation has innovation in the c-suite in some way if the aim is to foster a culture of problem-solving? Whether its Chief Design Officer or whatever it may be. Not all innovation has to happen through startups.

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