Innovation Notes: Avoiding the 'Good Ideas' trap.
This is the second in a series of articles that I'll be sharing weekly.
They're designed to be very brief and easy to read, and share some insights on how you can start to develop Innovation Capacity within your own organisations. I hope you find them useful, and if you have any questions, get in touch!
Avoiding the 'Good Ideas' trap.
BlueSky thinking, lightbulbs, flashes of brilliance, that one great idea, hackathons. These variations on ‘Ideation Processes’ are the stock and trade of many ‘innovation programs’. A lot of leaders get locked locked in a quest for 'great ideas' without realizing just how incredibly damaging it can be, how it rewards exactly the wrong behaviors and in the long term, reduces an organization's Innovation Capacity. There are many examples of how this happens in organizations, but three of them happen with an alarming level of consistency. Here goes:-
The adulation of the brightest spark. Earlier in my career, I worked in a company that was incredibly well recognized for its operational excellence, but not so much its ability to innovate. Consistency was valued more than creativity, and while that generated massive growth and success, there was always this lingering feeling that 'if only we could be really creative, everything would be better’. The thing is, we were creative, but in small and very targeted ways.
Because of the continued growth of our business unit, a new VP was hired to take over our team. He wore brightly colored clothing and geometrically shaped glasses, and he was desperate to innovate. This could have been a good thing, but all of the practices he put in place rewarded ideas, but not execution. People who were willing to loudly advocate for their own genius concepts were lauded as the ‘bright sparks’; and they ended up completely overwhelming the more enquiring voices. Those people who wanted to ask questions, understand, learn and then adapt, they started to look elsewhere. One by one they drifted off to other groups. The ‘bright sparks’ brought in more of their own ilk to replace them, and they all continued to outshine each other with their brilliance. Results started to fall, and after a few customer disasters, the group was disbanded.
The paradox of the ‘highest paid person in the room’ (HIPPO).
In every meeting, unless we consciously design it otherwise, most people will defer to the most senior person present. This is often the person who everyone thinks is the highest paid person in the room. The HIPPO doesn't necessarily see themselves being explicitly responsible for the outcome, but even if they do, the reality is they cannot make the ideas happen without people to deliver on them. As a result, what happens after the meeting is they then go back and they tell people what to do based on what they heard in the Ideas Workshop.
But the people they ask very often aren’t the people who came up with the ideas in the first place. So now we have a group of people who are disconnected from the idea, going off and trying to do what the other person told them that they should be doing, and we have another group who believe that those ideas are actually going to happen, when they’re probably not. So with the best of intentions, the people who had the viable ideas are feeling completely disregarded and frustrated that they’re not being listened to, and another group of people who are probably already very busy have now been allocated ‘special projects’ they possibly don’t really understand or feel particularly committed to. It doesn't take long before ‘Innovation’ becomes something that anyone with sense makes every effort to avoid.
Getting Lost in Translation.
In Sophia Coppola’s brilliant movie, ‘Lost in Translation’, the sense of cultural isolation is so incredibly real, I was fascinated to hear her talk about what made this happen. One aspect that really struck me was how she encouraged ‘improvisation’ throughout the filming process. It made me question how much of the brilliant acting isn't acting at all, but the performers expressing their own very human and very familiar feelings of confusion. Ideas can follow a similar lifecycle, the further they move from the originator, the more they morph and change, the more they lose generative and transformative power. They become abstract, hard to understand, their value is lost in translation. The movie is brilliant because the emotions we feel are being felt by the people who are showing them to us. They explode off the screen with tremendous power, no translation required.
When we look at how innovation can fail in organizations, the end of the ‘translation chain’ can be where people feel most resentful because they’re now being told to do something by a boss who doesn’t fully understand the idea. It seems half baked because she heard it in a room with a whole bunch of people ‘Ideating’ where the only purpose is to generate ideas, or it’s been translated so many times, it’s lost all meaning. When it reaches the workforce, it’s just greeted with a belief that ‘this too shall pass’.
The brilliance that perhaps drove the idea to begin with has been diluted, it’s lost all energy and relevance, and now it has become an exercise in compliance. An idea that had the potential to genuinely create change, drive commitment and generate excitement about the possibilities at a cross functional level, is now a top down frog-march, resistance is futile, compliance is mandatory.
The thing is, these situations are present in every organization I’ve ever worked with, and we have absolutely no one to blame for this but ourselves. There are a whole lot of factors that drive this, massively hierarchical organizational structures, over-stimulated egos, distributed or outsourced delivery silos, but probably the biggest one is the puzzling concept that if we want to innovate, we have to get lots of smart people engaged in ideation. To quote Sam Walton “The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say. It’s terribly important for everyone to get involved. Our best ideas come from clerks and stockboys.”
There are much better ways to drive a sustainable culture of innovation. If you’d like to know more, get in touch.