I took a call this week from a person working for another organisation, we’ll call her Bill.
Despite having a hugely supportive executive team the problems Bill faces are numerous:
- Managers are asking why are we working on a new initiative when the priority is just to keep income coming in.
- People are questioning when we will ever see any results? They say projects take too long and cost too much money.
- It takes a long time to get new projects approved – there are exhaustive reports to be submitted to make a business case.
- There are four tiers of management between Bill and the CEO and a lot of internal stakeholders to get on board.
The big problem here is divergence of priorities.
Senior management anticipate the brand new shiny innovation ideas and front-line colleagues can’t wait to be rid of their daily frustrations. However there are a whole group of people in the middle who don’t have an interest in either of these things and have the potential to slow things down.
The role of the middle manager is to hit targets and keep the business running. They are not intentional blockers but anything new that gets thrown at them is just another thing that threatens efficiency.
They have a different set of values to the innovators and creatives.
What often happens is organisations confuse these two things – innovation and business as usual. As Victor W. Hwang has written – the values are opposed. Successful companies must exist in both worlds—innovation and production—simultaneously. That’s hard to do.
Good ideas fail because they can’t cross the cultural barrier between innovation and production. What we need to do as organisations is to create the conditions for these to co-exist and establish a handover point from innovation to business as usual.
My advice was built around four points:
Most organisations understand incremental change – change that doesn’t fundamentally challenge how the organisation works. Radical change is where we struggle.
Innovation is not a commodity or something you can contain in a project. It means creating space – physically and mentally – where we are free to challenge business as usual, actively take on the dominant culture and think beyond existing roles, budgets and structures.
Managers are often right to question new initiatives as they are often solution focussed rather than problem focused. One of the most crucial causes of failure is the right questions were never asked at the outset.
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- How do we know this is a real problem?
- Why is it important to solve?
- How will we know if we’ve solved the problem?
Answering those first will save you a heap of time and get your innovation efforts taken a lot more seriously.
When you don’t really know the way forward the best strategy is to spread your bets with small experiments. It’s these practical tests that show whether the fundamental assumptions about radical innovation are correct and what they mean for your business.
The challenge we all face is shifting our learning from slow and expensive to fast and cheap.
We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.
Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’. That means we need to get comfortable reporting on intelligent failure and what we learned as a result.
Having a strategy based on small losses takes most of the risk out of innovation.
To transform our organisations, we must live with two sets of values simultaneously.
We need to be boringly effective and radically disruptive at the same time. That sometimes happens by keeping the right people apart from one another.
The trick is knowing when and how to bring them together.
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