The antidote to Innovation Fatigue

Innovation for the Fatigued
How to build a culture of deep creativity

By Alf Rehn

In his new book Innovation for the Fatigued author and professor Alf Rehn, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, comes to bury innovation management not to praise them. Innovation fatigue is the result of everyone at work who’s sat through talks, taken part in initiatives, or in general has experienced “innovation” work that has primarily revolved around buzz words and empty concepts. The antidote, according to Rehn, is not yet another innovation model or process. Instead it means digging into the messy work of people and those human needs and relationships we require to do exceptional work or even the impossible.

When I read Innovation for the Fatigued I felt something I wasn’t expecting from yet another business book: inspiration. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I read Guy Kawasaki’s Rules for Revolutionaries or Seth Godin’s Purple Cow years ago. These authors enlighten and refresh due to their willingness, no eagerness, to call bullshit on standard ways of working. Both of those books propelled me forward in good directions. I feel the same way after reading Rehn’s book.

Part of the enjoyment comes from the stories Alf shares from the front lines, where he’s listened to an “innovation bullshit” talk filled with inspirational nonsense. I admit that I get an inordinate amount of pleasure of hearing someone describe the well-intended snake oil salesmen pitching change. The big question I’m sitting with is this: how come companies are still paying those consultants big money?

Why did Rehn write the book? He explains it here:

Deep and Shallow Innovation
In analyzing the malaise Rehn discusses the difference between deep and shallow innovation. Most of what’s called “innovation” these days is shallow; it is safe or flashy or copy-cat.

It reminds of me of a couple of colleagues who wanted advice to run a week-long sprint for a client. The client wanted to hold the sprint in the lobby of the headquarters. I told them point blank that if the client was really interested in taking this much of peoples’ time to create something of value then the lobby was a particularly poor choice of venue. They held it there anyway. By Wednesday of that week they had moved it to another room; they weren’t getting much done in public. It was a prime example of shallow innovation theater.

Deep innovation, on the other hand, requires dealing with quirky and irrational people and creating an environment that allows them to be quirky and irrational. Most innovation comes from there. The book describes how to create an atmosphere that enables deep innovation.

This approach jives well with a quote from another book:

“According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a patent can only be awarded to an idea that is deemed to be an ‘illogical step.’”

Luke Dormehl in Thinking Machines

The rest of the book outlines how to get there, focusing on the human values of respect, reciprocity and a generosity of spirit, responsibility and a courage to be vulnerable.

You can read the rest of the book for details. But one of Rehn’s strengths is to offer up the tough love needed for true change. It reads like a no-bullshit primer for transformation. Mostly because it’s hard to do things right or well, but it’s not impossible. Perhaps the point is that once you start moving along these paths you’re never done; you have to keep on working on it.

Some of my favorite suggestions from the book include:

  • Make reciprocity mandatory
  • Promote givers
  • Incentivize intelligent self-doubt
  • Encourage respectful disharmony

And that’s really the key to success: you have to operationalize those behaviors where the norm points in the opposite direction or paints these behaviors as s reflections of failure. You can talk all you want about different ways to innovate but if there’s no consequence to business as usual, or best practices (“shit that used to work” according to Rehn) your business will not change.

Time, Velocity and Slack
The last big point that is worth repeating and re-repeating are the different speeds of innovation. Some initiatives require agile spurts while others take long patient slogs. Rehn shares good examples of how the latter timeframe produces more significant innovation, going against the grain of our Silicon Valley group think of sprinting toward change.

And he asks one of the best questions in the book: “Do you have a strategy in place for radical patience?” Radical patience, I love it.

I ended the book inspired. It connects extremely well with the work I’m doing now, which is trying to embed human-centered design in organizations with the goal of helping them to create solutions of true value for their customers and their employees. It’s not simply about learning tools or teaching someone how to make a customer journey map. It’s about changing how you show up at work and how you collaborate with the people connected to your business. It is hard and sometimes slow work and it takes time.

In the end, as Rehn puts it, it’s the difference between creating an app for finding the best beach and creating a way to clean plastics from the ocean.

Roger Martin defined innovation as “customer-driven, providing a new product or process that adds value to somebody’s life.” Alf Rehn’s Innovation for the Fatigued provides us with inspiration and direction on how to get there, in a very human, sometimes messy, but ultimately necessary way.

If you’re looking for some innovation inspiration, buy and read the book.

Photo by: Henry Harrison

Design Director and co-founder of Savvy Design Collaborative, design-driven entrepreneurship at YALI Dartmouth, VPR commentator, now playing in Sweden.

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