Innovation: Not a Deliverable, Nothin’ Special

The Practice Collection

We are starting to understand that change in organizations can come in many sizes, speeds and shapes.The first is that slow, incremental change in some process, policy or product that comes with an understanding that what we are doing here is actually working very well, thank you very much. We would be careful to insure that any changes would probably be small, come slow and come with very careful thought so as not to disrupt the fundamental joy that this bit is actually working.The more common form of change is the “tweak” or innovative change that will for all intents and purposes, make the process, policy or product even better than it is right now. It is not really disruptive and is rooted in the basic workplace fundamental of daily problem solving. Innovation does not ask us to change the basics; rather it encourages us to improve upon them.Real disruption, of course, is what I like to call “shift.” This is when we actually let go of the basics…open our minds and conversations and see what comes around to completely change how we thought, saw and did it before…the rivers and ponds skating rink … the shift disturber.

Lately I have been working with some amazing young thinkers with the BC Government and they have been wrestling with the concept of innovation and what it might mean to their work…they have given me cause to reflect on my own thinking and assumptions.

I have been looking back at my own experience with organizations as management grabbed that word innovation like a cowboy grabbing leather on a bull about to throw them off. One of the true curses in organizational improvement was the long time mental model that help would come in some program out there. Let me explain. That new program for sale out there is always the perfect fit for the executive who loves the “tick-box” and the “deliverable.”

We love the package …

You can see the package, hold the package, measure the package, deliver the package, receive a package and pay for the package. It’s tidy.

Let’s say our executive wants to improve leadership in the organization or communication or wellness. Chances are in most cultures; the first thought is one of investigating and perhaps subsequently purchasing a good-looking package on, lets say, leadership, communication or wellness.

It wont be called a package … it will be called a program, but rest assured, it will come as a package deal. It will have a curriculum, modules, materials, trainers and maybe even some certification.

It will be a combination of goods and services, bought and sold, and using the todays jargon, , a fantastic deliverable with affordable, great metrics. I once watched as our department actually bought a program on values based management as if values were a training proposition instead of an ongoing cultural conversation. Just deliver the workshops and put up the posters and we will be a values led organization.

In my career, I witnessed the selling, buying and delivery of many and varied hot-button programs.   I would love to say that I saw great strides made and even greater returns of the generous investments, but alas…

One of the key contemporary desirables in today’s organizations is innovation, but do we really know what we are asking for? Everyone wants innovation as a key value, a key indicator and a key result in their organization. As a word, it is loaded with heavy freight.

So what is it exactly?

I don’t know…please drop me a line if you have the exact answer, the closest I have come is its use as a descriptive adjective …

You could have innovative ideas (much sexier word than new ideas, I suppose)

You could have innovative projects.

You could have innovative people.

You could have innovative thinking, innovative technology, innovative practices, innovative styles and innovative management. Put this way, I suppose that everything we do in life is open to the innovative way, a better way. Its how we got here from the cave I guess.

So why would an executive still believe that he or she could buy and deliver an innovation program that all we have to do is “roll it out.”

It strikes me that innovation may be more a way of being than a way of doing.

Perhaps it is best to describe innovation as a culture….we don’t do innovation or implement innovation rather we live it daily in our workplace culture. We challenge, we think, we collaborate, we talk, we screw-up, we research, we steal (oops, benchmark) we apply rigor, we support, we care and we respect other ideas and thinking.

Perhaps we might consider that we cannot actually inject innovation into a system but rather we might work to transform the systems in order for innovation to finally emerge.

Let’s face it, innovation is not a project, not a program, not a special week, not a committee but rather a result…a result of doing everything, including thinking, better than yesterday, a result of creating a culture in our organization that gets results because people think better, collaborate better and practice personal leadership better and they do it together.

The old school thinking that innovation was something special, something unique or something we remember from that whole thing we did two years ago, makes it into that most cynical of all organizational tropes … a flavor of the month. We have this innovation project rather than this innovation culture.

My brother just told me one of his many stories, this one about the time he became a manager of the technical operations of a large hospital system. The only non-smoker in the bunch, he was told that one of the new duties of his department was to see that the smoking receptacles outside the building were emptied when full.

Why us, he asked …

Well they said, these special designed butt holders had bolts holding the lid on and you are the only department with wrenches that fit those bolts, so it’s obviously your job.

My brother, a plumber by trade, has deal with “shift happens” issues all his life, says no more and heads downtown to buy six large, metal garbage can, drills a small hole in the lid which he screws down with metal screws. Out go the badly designed and in come the new … effectively throwing out bad decisions and bad design. The new ones have not been emptied in years, instead of every two weeks.

It seems to be that innovation workshops programs or posters cannot substitute for people feeling empowered at all levels to solve problems and make things better. The whole culture of General Electric was changed when they shifted from bad meetings and interminable committees to the fast moving, knowledge gathering, and focused Workout tool. They essentially created an innovation petri dish, a culture, not a program. Both the front lines and management were now fully engaged in innovation and an engaged workforce by definition, will be an innovation workforce.

I just sense that innovation is already here, in the hearts and minds of our good people, they just need to up their engagement scores. Our priority should be to find the tools and practices that heat up those engagement scores.

A final thought today from my colleague Ann-Marie Daniels, whose father took those wonderful early ideals of open technology, applied them to post secondary learning with the Open Universities and then on to open knowledge values. Today there is a fine move to the concept of open innovation where organizations start letting go of the “ownership” model of innovation and start to more freely share. We could share the half baked, or almost baked innovative results with others and them with us, in order to finally get the noble cake that will make the better world.