The innovation conundrum

“You must innovate to survive” has become something of a truism in today’s business environment and yet many companies and large organisations are hopeless at innovation.

It doesn’t matter how much the leadership team say they are going to innovate or how many team away days, corporate hack-a-thons, suggestion boxes or way-out schemes they try, they either produce nothing or spectacularly ill-judged failures.

There is much head-scratching, renewed exhortations, and even more desperate attempts to ‘innovate’ or create an ‘innovation culture’ but each  wave of efforts yields the same pitiful returns.

Yet the reason for this failure is obvious. They say they want innovation but they have an organisation and culture that prevents it.

It’s like saying you want to lose weight whilst eating cake and watching TV all day – and then being surprised that the pounds aren’t dropping off.

Innovation requires people to take risks, to try things out that might fail, to be vulnerable. 

This will only happen in environments where there are high levels of trust and people feel psychologically safe.

Where failures are seen as opportunities for learning.
Where people feel they will be judged and rewarded fairly for their efforts.
Where the will be treated with empathy and respect and supported through their difficulties.

How many workplaces do you know that are like that?

Or are you more familiar with strictly hierarchical organisations that treat people like cogs in the machine? 

Where they are subjected to the impersonal application of rules and procedures and often bullying and coercion.
Where people are rewarded for their ability to game the system rather than their contribution. Where risk is not tolerated and failure is punished failure.
Where command and control and secrecy are the norm rather than allowing people the freedom to explore and experiment and collaborate with others.

Innovation is a product of a healthy culture and an agile organisation. If a company is failing to  innovate then it lacks one of these, or probably both.

This is a challenging issue to resolve, requiring a change in mental models as well as organisational restructure. It is solvable but you have to recognise and acknowledge the problem first, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.

You won’t lose weight on a diet of cake and TV, and  you won’t innovate in a command and control hierarchy and a culture of secrecy. You have to change your behaviours, your environment and your culture.

And whether you take on that challenge or not depends on how much you want to survive as a business.

Photo by niu niu on Unsplash

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