You probably don’t work at an innovative organization…
I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you. Sometimes someone has deliver the bad news and right now it’s me.
Sure, you’ve been to inspirational meetings where leadership exalts the team to act innovatively, to disrupt the status quo and to reach for the stars. Maybe you’ve participated in some sprints, a few days or maybe a week out of your year where it felt like you had the freedom to act outside of your box. Or perhaps your small group, or another group around you, has played around with some design or innovation processes within some tightly constrained project.
These are all good things! But it doesn’t make your organization innovative. Wanting and wishing are not the same as acting and doing.
According to a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, three-quarters of companies say innovation is a priority, but only 20% of businesses are ready and equipped to innovate. Ready and equipped which is not quite the same thing as actively and consistently innovating. I reached out to a number of innovation experts and they say that only 10% of organizations they work with or know of are truly innovative.
Let me put that in another way: 9 out of 10 organizations are not truly innovative. They may dabble and have great intentions but they are not able to consistently operate innovatively. 9 out of 10 is pretty much everyone. Most likely, you work at one of these 9.
Again, sorry to give you the bad news.
So, what is an innovative hungry person to do? We can’t ALL get new jobs at those 10% organizations.
Here are a couple of highly imperfect, maybe sometimes risky, suggestions. All I ask is that you try to channel your inner disruptor and your nascent leadership.
One thing I’ve experienced that helps, over time, is to act as a content curator. Find great, inspiring examples of organizations that do innovation well and share those stories. And not just stories of successes but even stories of failures, hardships, and slogs. Innovation is hard but we humans love stories of how we overcome barriers to succeed. So put on your editorial hat and gather, gather, gather, and share, share, share. Your goal is to show that if others have succeeded, so can you.
Another suggestion, which is harder, is to keep pointing out the gap between words and deeds in your daily work. Do you have innovation goals or other strategies that you never quite get to in all of your busy work? Most of the time we don’t make it to the top of the mountain. But we need to keep discussing why we don’t get there and whether those goals are still worth pursuing. Post- and pre-mortems are great for these discussions — and most people will claim they are too busy to do them. But they are critical for improvement.
[There’s also a risk here for you who bring up this gap. Others will accuse you of being negative and “not a team player.” The opposite is true. Trying to keep an organization true to its goals and strategy might be the greatest value you can provide.]
One more thing you can do is to find those micro-spaces for experimentation. Even the busiest projects have space to experiment if you really want to. Experimentation is a key attribute of innovation. Rather than curating or discussing, act the innovation you want to be. Don’t feel cowed by those who say you are wasting time and money — if someone throws that in your way demand that they account for the wasted time and money on the many inefficient meetings in projects. But find those one or two innovation processes you want to try (and as a designer I would suggest some qualitative interviews with your target customer before the project kicks off as well as qualitative user testing with customers during the process. They can give you the most bang for your buck.)
Lastly, stalk your leadership team and ask them to engage with you in discussions about innovation. As with all of the above, find allies to do this together with so they understand that there is a significant and precarious gap between words and action. Ask them to engage with your group over time.
Remember, to act as a truly innovative organization is hard. You need new practices and methods, new structures and processes, and new incentives and accountability systems. And you need a leadership group that keeps reinforcing these while painting a new picture of the future.
Yes, most of us work for the 90% of organizations that are not really innovative. The goal for all of us is to make that number less and less over time.
Good luck, and don’t give up hope! And share what works and doesn’t work with others so that we all get better at innovation.