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Monday, November 30, 2009

People With Passion Drive Innovation Success

by Jeffrey Phillips

I love those truisms that people use to describe a situation. Strangely they are usually based on obvious failures, but perhaps it's simply easier to teach people based on failure than success. Some relatively well-known truisms include:

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink
You can't push a string uphill
Time waits for no man

I'd like to add one about innovation. While we like to say that everyone can innovate, its probably also safe to say that

You can't force a disinterested person to innovate

Now, to me, a person who loves change and new ideas, I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't leap at the chance to participate in innovation. Sign me up! But I've discovered that while "everyone" can be innovative, many people usually aren't, and there are several good reasons for that. Understanding the reasons, and identifying the people who can or will overcome the barriers, will make your innovation effort more successful.

The first reason some people can't or won't innovate is that they don't understand what innovation has to do with them. They simply can't imagine doing their work any differently, and if they did innovate, they might have to learn a new way of doing things. They either can't, or won't imagine the possibility of doing things in a new or different way. These folks aren't resistant to innovation per se, they are resistant to CHANGE.

The second reason some people can't or won't innovate is that they don't believe they'll have the opportunity, or permission, or time. They are willing to project a new future and to try to change, but believe that nothing will change, or that if they have good ideas they'll just be shot down. These folks have good imaginations and are willing to exercise them. They aren't resistant to innovation, they are RESIGNED to the current state or believe it can't be changed.

The third reason some people can't or won't innovate is that they don't want the extra work involved. They are perfectly comfortable punching a clock for eight hours and going home on time. They can see the opportunities for change and innovation, but don't want to have to do anything extra. They aren't resistant to innovation, they simply expect to PUNCH THE CLOCK and don't want any extra work.

The fourth reason some people can't or won't innovate is that they have been infected with a negative perspective or bias. They can recognize the possibilities for innovation but believe that their firm "won't listen" or shoot down their own ideas or the ideas of others too quickly. Just like a the barrel of crabs pulls down any crab that tries to escape, these folks use their negative mojo to shut down any innovation effort. They aren't necessarily resistant to innovation, they are simply NEGATIVE about anything new or different.

OK, so if you weed out these individuals from your organization, then hopefully what's left are the open-minded, the engaged, the change agents and the naive, and that's the perfect blend for innovation. Innovation is going to require change, since it will introduce new products, services or business models. It will require open minded people who can and will think differently. It will require the naive who don't yet know what "can't" be done. And it will require the people who are most engaged who will be willing to make the changes and do the extra work required to make innovation succeed.

This is why we try to staff all innovation efforts with volunteers. People who will volunteer for a difficult project that requires change see the opportunities and want to accomplish them, regardless of the obstacles and barriers, and are willing to do the extra work. Conversely, people who have been conscripted to innovation work are likely to doubt it can happen and abandon the effort at the first sign of resistance, or simply wait for permission.

Perhaps the easiest way to kill an innovation project is to staff it with people who don't believe it will be successful, aren't willing to effect change and who are content to wait passively for permission to proceed.

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of "Make us more Innovative", and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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Blogger Adam said...

I was enjoying this post quite a bit until I hit on the part about weeding people out. I could not disagree more! People are naturally interested in innovation. If they appear to be disinterested, it is because they have had some part of their humanity beaten out of them. By their teachers, their parents, society in general and, yes, the companies they work for.

If you are a manager and you're even thinking a little about weeding someone out because they seem disinterested in innovation, take a very deep breath and prepare to ask yourself some tough questions. Chances are, you are a big part of the problem. It is your responsibility to set the organizational conditions in which a person's natural inclination to innovate can re-emerge and flower. What do you compensate people for? Do you force them to hit a short term number and then wonder why they prefer not to spend their time on innovation? Do your employees see you trying new behaviors? Does your office look like a Soviet style office building? What did you do today to demonstrate unequivocally that you are passionate about innovation?

Odds are, you are not only failing to adequately support innovation but that you are even engaging in counterproductive behaviors that will guarantee you never see any innovation happening under your watchful eye.

So let's drop the talk about weeding people out. Instead, let's help people rediscover their natural proclivity to understand and improve the world around them.

11:45 PM  
Anonymous Martin Griese said...

Completely agree with your comment Adam. Once of the foundations of creative management: nuture and build - don't knock down! Creating the right environment needs to be on the top of the agenda. Equally I have experienced working with people who made it an art to let their desire to innovate flourish in environments rather hostile to innovation.

2:44 AM  
Anonymous Jose Baldaia said...

Hi Jeffrey
To all that reasons you talk, resistance to change, resignation, comfortable environment and negativism or prejudice I will add lack of happiness.
I think that people work better with fun and if we want to develop a innovation culture we need to create an appropriate environment for inspiration, creation and implementation.
I also do not like to see people going out from their places, but it is hard sometimes to involve them in new activities and I had experienced that. Some people prefer negotiation to retirement instead behavioral changes.
To me the best way to promote innovation is to change the environment. Innovation is contagious.

2:00 PM  

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