Innovation Is Neither a Process nor a Department

5 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

I was recently talking to a colleague who has been tagged to lead innovation for his employer. I was taken slightly aback when he mentioned that some big name strategy consultants told him that creating a culture of innovation was intractable and that he was better off creating a team that popped innovative stuff out.

This whole conversation reminded me of my consulting days where fortune 100 companies asked me to "create an innovation process" for them or to "help them spin up an innovation team". I struggled with these requests, given that I knew it would not do much to further the end goal of a sustainably innovative enterprise. I would often struggle with responding to these requests because it involves unwinding several assumptions baked into the mind of my conversation partner.

Everyone's Got a Big But

Everyone wants the secret to innovation. In a near perfect mirror to collaboration, each year we hear the same stuff…"This is the year!", "Not yet…maybe next year." "Creating culture takes too long." "The technology isn't there yet." "We want to do it this year but…" With apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot, Pee Wee Herman had it right: "But what? Everyone I know has a big "But...? C'mon, Simone, let's talk about your big "but".

The dilemma above is the flip-side to the team and process requests I would get: Organizations that know what they want, but don't know how to approach it. This lack of a clear next step causes most everyone to throw up their hands and walk away from the problem. Each of these two dynamics are the result of the same problem; the lack of a mental model for what would drive innovative behavior and results.

Did Anybody Tell you That This is the Private Club of the Satan's Helpers?

I would struggle with articulating a mental model as well, and I am now happy to say that I have arrived at a new description that might create some progress: Innovation should not be thought of as a linear process that yields innovative ideas. Neither can innovation be thought of as a department separated from the rest of the company spitting out stuff for everyone else to catch and transition. 

Instead of thinking of innovation as a managed process with scheduled phases or a department with specific members, think of innovation as a party where everyone is invited, activities are very loosely scheduled and there is only one rule -- rather than saying "yes but", in order to be guest at the party, you have to say "yes and".

The number one thing that stops innovation (and collaboration too) is this -- destructive dialogue. Innovation, collaboration and possibility in general is uplifted into a virtuous circle by the tactics of positive dialogue (e.g., "yes and") and driven down into a downward spiral by negative, destructive dialogue (e.g., "yes but"). Truly creative problem solving has the longest reaching results when not inhibited by naysayers.

Learning Opportunities

Look to your own personal experience. Do you do your best work when you are inspired by what might be possible, or, when you are fearful of the consequences of making mistakes. Innovation is best inspired when a culture of fast failure and inclusion is both spoken about, and shown to be more than words. A recent real-world example of this can be found when looking at Netflix. Netflix's culture and performance rebound are a direct result of a great product combined with a great attitude.

To give concrete examples of the language-as-limit phenomena one only has to look so far as CMSWire's own Deb Lavoy. Deb stirs deep thought, controversy and positive progress without making any person or discipline less-than any other. Deb inspires readers to push forward without the language of "making wrong". This is what allows for the rich and thoughtful set of responses and deeper commitment to positive wide-spread progress (i.e., a movement).

Oh Rusty, You Are an Inspiration to us All! 

Two examples that starkly contrast each other can be seen when looking at Gene Kim and, my favorite foil, Ron Baker. Gene's inspiring words move IT and business professionals across industry. He not only writes books that skyrocket to the top of the Kindle's best selling business books lists, he creates new followers every day with his commitment to positive language and change.

Ron Baker, on the other hand, is a lone qualitative voice in the world of accounting who is trying to break out and create a movement with professional services firms, strategy consultants and organizational behavior professionals. Ron's provocative ideas are quite interesting, and have a lot of merit. Quite often, however, Ron chooses to make his case through belittling others. I have a couple of questions for Ron Baker -- How's that "insulting the disciplines of others thing" working for you? Is your movement taking off? Do you feel excited and happy every day? Are people inspired to work with you and join your cause?

For every somewhat positive comment on Ron's blog I see an equal amount of commenters deriding him and his ideas. Any piece of keen insight from Ron is overshadowed by his penchant to fall into the role of demagogue (e.g., referring to HR departments as non-strategic, paper pushing bureaucrats).

Creating substantive progress in areas like innovation and collaboration doesn't come from making an exclusive club, a rigid process or deriding others as less creative. Real progress in these areas comes from being inclusive, honoring the efforts of others and calling them to a higher purpose.