On Innovation Ambition

02 February 2017, posted by Alf Rehn

Originally published on https://www.speakersassociates.com/blog/innovation-ambition-how-its-lost-and-how-you-can-regain-it

Innovation, that beloved business concept, has never wanted for discussion or commentary. Everyone talks about it. Still, our current way of addressing it suffers from a troubling mismatch. There is no end to conferences, books, and magazine articles that in one way or other laud innovation. Yet this talk doesn’t always translate to action, or enough action. More to the point, innovation can mean many things, some less ambitious than others. And due to this, we can have lots of talk of revolutions and disruptions, whilst seeing very little of either.

In my work with organizations, this can and has become quite tangible. Particularly so in big corporations. These do talk of innovation, almost as a mantra. At the same time, there is in many of these a distinct tendency to go for the easy way out when it comes to innovation. For instance, I was recently working with an large IT company. They are fast-growing, have healthy profits, and state that innovation is at the heart of all they do. At the same time, their time and resources go into updating their existing products. Their few more innovative projects tend to falter due to employee disinterest. The CEO focuses on existing clients, and the COO wields tremendous influence. As a results, their margins have started to drop, and much of their turnover comes from older products. They represent a typical case of low innovation ambition, and it may yet be their doom.

Not all innovation is created equal. 

While we tend to talk of everything novel as “innovative” or “an innovation”, this is a problem, not a solution. When any- and everything can (and is) referred to as an innovation, the word starts losing meaning. We can see this when companies market even the minutest change to a product an innovation. We can see it when even bureaucracies talk of supporting innovative services. After a while, the concept starts losing meaning, both in society and inside a corporation. The former is problematic enough, and deserves separate study. What the latter does is that it quells a company’s potential of innovation. Employees stop caring, and no longer push radical ideas. Companies create evermore pedestrian improvements, lessening society’s innovation as a whole. Step by step, statement by statement, innovation withers.

Talking the talk

The interesting thing here is the role played by innovation talk. Books and magazines insist companies are creating great innovations, and we belive them. Gurus tell us that we live in the age of innovation, and we trust them. Consultants lure us with tales of great innovation to come, and we nod along. Still, all this talk can be a ruse. It lulls us into a false sense of security, one where we abdicate our responsibility to innovate.

This was exactly what had happened at the IT-company I worked with. They had brought in cool consultants, and a hip brand agency. They had innovation slogans plastered across their offices. They had the word in their slogan. Their marketing material declared that their every product was an innovation. Their managers used buzzwords and catchphrases right out of the innovation literature. Phrases straight out of business magazines peppered company presentations.

Still, this didn’t translate to enthusiasm among the employees. In interviews, I came across both apathy and confusion when it came to innovation in the company. Several of the people I talked to said they didn’t know what managers meant by innovation. Others expressed a lack of interest in the very word. One stated:

I have no idea if we’re innovating or not. The bosses say we are, but down here we’re doing what we’ve always done. I laugh when I see a product I’ve written code for called an innovation. I know it’s an update. Sometimes it’s not even a great one.

What we see happening here is a case of innovation, as a concept, losing meaning. By overusing it, and applying it in indiscriminate ways, managers were suffocating it. Employees no longer saw it as meaningful, and as a result stopped caring.

In the land of lost ambition

The short way to put this is: When everything is an innovation, nothing is. In order for innovation to be meaningful and inspirational, it needs to stand apart. What had happened in the company I’m describing was the opposite of this. Nothing stood out, and as a result, employees started thinking that nothing mattered. In fact, the tendency to praise everything as an innovation lessened innovation. It isn’t difficult to see why.

Innovation, real innovation, is always risky. It carries costs, it can fail, and you can look foolish for trying it. At the same time, you’re supposed to be innovative, an innovator. For an employee, this can seem like a difficult thing to navigate. But the current vogue for declaring all things innovations creates a way out! Employees, realizing they can eat their cake and have it too, start gaming the system. They engage with innovation projects, but only safe ones. The more ambitious projects get little attention. Why why take the risk when you can be “an innovator” without it?

We can even see this on a company level. When media (and the stock market) rewards you for incrementalism, why try for radical? As long as there are those prepared to call your new doohickey an innovation, why try to change the world?

The vapidity of our innovation discourse incentivizes companies to keep innovation ambition low!

Reinvigorating innovation ambition

What we need, then, is to reinvigorate innovation. Not by another poster, not by another workshop, but by making the word meaningful again. This isn’t achieved by repeating the word over and over, but by being mindful about how it’s applied. Further, we can do this by making innovation the exception, not the assumed rule. This latter point will no doubt confuse some. Shouldn’t we try to make innovation an everyday thing? No.

Trying to make innovation a daily, constant thing is a recipe for exhaustion and lethargy. When innovation is a break with business as usual, it energizes. When it becomes a constant demand and a routine, it invites obliviousness. Managers who are nonchalant about the concept create cultures nonchalant about innovation. Innovation should be an exception, but not an anomaly. Instead, we should celebrate it as an exceptional thing, a special case. Incessant repetition of the term only makes it seem less special, more mundane. Boring, even.

Neither is innovation invigorated by celebrating every possible thing. Innovation participation is important, sure. But if everyone gets an award every time, we incentivize turning up, not doing great. Also, if we celebrate every small step forward, we lose sight of the heights we can scale. Most organizations can achieve great things, if there is ambition and drive. Bland innovation talk, and tepid leadership, can make this a nigh impossibility.

Towards the ambitious organization

So what is a leader to do? Ambition isn’t created out of thin air, and often a key issue is what a leader stops doing. Shouting louder about innovation won’t help, nor will bullying employees. Instead, intelligent leaders will consider the ways they themselves may have neutered discourse. Leaders need to consider what their organization incentivizes — talk or impact. Is saying the right thing more important than changing things? Then it is time for a change.

Say “innovation” less often — but mean it when you do. The easiest way to start is to talk less about innovation. Yes, this sounds counterintuitive. Still, the key element that stifles innovation ambition is the overuse of the concept. Refer to innovation when you mean major, impactful change. Refer to improvement when you’ve released a minor update to your product. This will communicate intent to the organization, and stops muddying the waters. You should of course keep demanding improvements, and development, and change. But by not calling everything innovation you make the latter sound important. You make it sound worth pursuing. You make it sound worthwhile.

Tell a powerful story. You build ambition by example, and stories are the greatest examples. It isn’t enough to tell the organization that it should innovate more, it needs to have the context. Emphasize what kind of innovation story you feel best captures true ambition. Highlight what innovation can be, at its very best. Narrate the impact innovation can have, not for your company, but for your customers and users. Populate your story with true-to-life characters, and show the change in their life. Pick one, great story, one to repeat and retell. Rather than me-too slogans about innovation, have a story that illustrates impact. This will be far more meaningful for the organization, and better as a guide for the employees. Only when we know what story we’re supposed to be part of, can we try to be heroes in the same.

Incentivize impact, not branding. In every major corporation I’ve worked with, there’s always been one. One person, who has built their career on being close to “innovation”, or even being “an innovator”. Often this person knows the right things to say, goes to the right meetings, and is keen to present new buzzwords. Less often are they the real innovators. In an age of innovation talk, mastering this can be a career path. Still, the intelligent leader looks beyond the branding aspect, and asks about impact. Who pushes an ambitious agenda, and who hides behind a PowerPoint? Who tries to solve big problems, and who dresses up small enhancements with big words? Even with lipstick marketed as innovative, a pig with it is still a pig…

Focus on change, not slogans. Calling yourself a “disruptor” is easy. That’s why so many are doing it. Enacting true change is far harder. Your marketing material may be punchy, but what have you changed? If your “innovation” disappeared from the market, would anyone (besides you) notice? Would anyone care? What you say about your company and its products matters less. It is the change you make possible, in the lives of your customers, that matters. Also, what change are you bringing to the world? Are you creating a better gadget, or are you part of creating a better world? The former might be novel, the latter deserves the label “innovative”.

Be audacious. You, and your organization, can be so much more than you are. The world is full of wicked problems and huge challenges. As a society, we struggle with massive issues. We struggle with how to live a good, healthy life in a world with limited resources. We struggle with how to bring the good that innovation can bring to the many rather than to the few. With struggle with how to progress without burning out the planet in the process. You can be part of this. Not be repeating “innovation” as a mantra, but by making it meaningful. You can set your ambition goals to “audacious”, and choose not to take the easy way out with innovation.

It is my firm belief that every organization can be innovative. Each organization I’ve worked with has had resources, ideas, and competencies a-plenty. Not every organization has been able to channel this, though. Many have made innovation a word to throw around, not an ambitious goal for the organization. Many a leader I’ve worked with has failed to make their innovation strive ambitious. Many have failed to energize their employees, and through this under-utilized their capacity.

We can do better. You can do better. Many organizations may have lost their ambition, but the right leader can regain it.

Will you be that leader?

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