Innovation depends heavily on ideas but ideas come from learning and reflecting as out of the blue. How many of us take the time to learn? What do we actually consider learning to be? To many of us it is simply reading journals or scouring the internet. These can often be discarded when time pressures build up. Take a look at your desk and those of your colleagues. See how many copies of Computing or New Scientist are balanced on the edge!
So what is a good way to do this on a daily basis? The answer really is anything that can become part of a habit. Depending on your working environment why not share workday experiences. This is easily done in a lab but can be done around the water cooler or coffee machine. I have seen people run up to team leaders and middle managers on the factory floor just to pass on a useful piece of information or idea about a production process. You can learn from anything – people, conferences, billboards, customers …..
Learning is all very well but we need to grab hold of what we have learned so that it can be recalled and used later. Individuals should make a habit of having a method of recording anything from ideas to feed back and useful snippets of information. As a group why not consider a Wiki, blog or other shared system for capturing thoughts? Articles can be tagged in useful ways e.g. feedback, failure, improvements. The only requirement should be that everybody can contribute and feel safe in doing so. Captured knowledge must be in a form that can be useful in the future.
This is not hard to think about doing because it seems so sensible but in practice it is the hardest habit of all to cultivate as an organisation. This is because much of what we call reflection is seen as time wasting or daydreaming by management. Once knowledge is captured we need to revisit it for our own purposes to see if a) it is complete b) if it jogs our memories. Also it is useful for it to be seen in a different light so showing it to people who may be colleagues but who work in a different department or on a different project. Often this may cause further information to be captured.
Each of these 3 things will help us understand what we do well and what requires improvement if we just record details of our own projects but if we scan further afield we also gain valuable knowledge, fuel for our innovation processes.
If someone knocks at your door and offers you ‘best practice’ you should say no. Best practice is at best a distillation of ‘what has been’ and has worked. It is based in the past and unless the system you are operating in is purely mechanical (e.g. you make nuts and bolts in bulk) then it is not guaranteed to work.
Apart from being fixed on the past, best practice usually consists of ready made methods or processes for you to copy. A consultant or well meaning colleague may thump a large book in front of you and say ‘just follow this and you will be alright’ but the chances are you will not.
Firstly the method or process has been lifted out of one context and dropped into another (probably different) context. The contextual information makes a huge difference. It could contain information on economic factors, industry sector, seasonal factors and many more. Secondly there is one huge factor that can never be identical, people. People are the biggest asset an organisation can have but they also provide the most variables. If you have been given advice like this, please do not blindly follow it, treat it as a reference work.
So what can we do? Sharing is not the problem, you just have to know what to share! Instead of throwing processes and methods at each other we should be sharing experiences (telling stories) and learning from them as well as sharing the tools for the trade (hammers, paint brushes, facilitation techniques, communications tools etc). Find like minded colleagues or business partners, share tools and experiences and use the knowledge gleaned to learn and create pathways into the future. We should be more interested in the journey than the destination.
During my recent visit to Malawi I had the pleasure of speaking at seminars and workshops to a large number of charming and very interesting people. My aim was to try and provide some of the latest thinking on Creativity and Innovation in an organisational context and to try and encourage the people I met to use alternative modes of thinking, to think creative thoughts.
Keen readers will remember the ‘How do you get a giraffe into a fridge’ test that I used last year (click on the giraffe to the right to revisit it). I used this on my audiences and was pleasantly surprised to find that answers were richer and more numerous than elsewhere. It is not right to say that Managers get the answers wrong but their responses are generally poorer than young children. My African friends did very well indeed so I began to wonder why this was. Was it a coincidence?
One of the central themes of Creativity is play, and education systems are designed to help us pass exams and be less creative. We then have to undergo a degree of ‘unlearning’ to be playful in the workplace. Keen followers of TED (see www.TED.com) may be familiar with the thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson. Click here to view his moving and entertaining talk, but only if you have 20 minutes to spare!
In our so called developed countries we have extensive educational systems, whilst in developing countries the systems are often constrained to keeping young people in school and teaching basic skills well. Yet there has been an explosion in many developing nations within Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In Cuba, trade embargoes have meant that motor engineers have created substitute brake fluid from shampoo and sugar whilst I have seen young boys in Africa change tractor tyres with only a few levers, a hand pump and some soapy water (no mean feat).
This natural creativity is present in us all when we are born but seems to remain only in countries where there are ‘light touch’ education systems. You may be thinking ‘what about the effect of culture?’ This is where things get a little complicated. In young people the two main drivers of Creativity are:
- An education system that does not stifle or judge
- A culture that allows play and lets ‘children be children’
As we grow up, different factors come into play which are mainly cultural. This often means that:
- In developed countries we are keen to be creative and innovative but we have lost the tools to work this way – our solution is to undertake even more training
- In developing countries, people have the natural tools but social pressures sometimes inhibit the ability to be critical or express radical thoughts openly – some people are just too polite. The solution may just be to overcome these personal barriers
In my view, the developing countries could have the edge but it will be a close run thing. The situation is obviously more complicated but these points should give us all food for thought. Any feedback is always welcome!
There is only one real reason why Innovation Programmes fail and that is the fact that you have taken no action at all! I’m sure, however, that is not what you want to hear and you will be shouting ‘not true’ at you computer screen. One of the components of any such programme is learning, so that even if you don’t hit the targets you set for yourself you will collect some knowledge on the way and thus not ‘fail’. The only way you can fail, therefore, is by not doing anything thus not making any progress and not learning anything.
If you have read much literature on the topic of Change Management then inaction will be a recurring theme. Many Managers mistake discussion, planning and specification for action thus they believe that an initiative may be underway when it is not. When asked what is happening they will tell you that the Innovation Task Force is meeting regularly and soon they will have objectives and a plan. Great in the early stages but you should ask the question ‘Have you actually done anything?’. In many cases the answer will be no. So no surprise that your initiative will be flagged as failing when it never actually started. To Innovate you must DO SOMETHING.
Readers will I’m sure like a few pointers as to why they have not made the progress they anticipated when they have taken action, so here are some potential reasons. Not all will apply to you but use them as a checklist:
- Employees do not know about your initiative – check communications
- Employees do not care about your initiative – check motivation and morale as well as management sponsorship
- Poor performance – did you identify any areas for training and development?
- Nothing is happening – have you officially kicked things off, have you changed what YOU do? Are others sabotaging your efforts?
- It all seems like hard work – do you have a team in place to help?
There are four broad categories of people to address when kicking off your innovation programme:
- Enthusiasts – no problem here, welcome them with open arms
- Disbelievers – ‘no that will never happen’, simply ‘do’ and conquer
- The Angry – ‘over my dead body’ hard work (see below)
- The Followers – ‘well if its going ahead I might as well tag along’, welcome these people also.
It is only the Angry (or Awkward) who pose a problem. What you need to realise is that a 70:30 rule applies here. If you run your innovation programme in an appropriate manner (you can borrow from Change Management here) then you will have 70% of your employees onside. There things aren’t so bad are they? So just DO, and you can’t actually fail!
Below are four simple questions, the Creative Management Challenge. Try to answer them all before looking at the answers.
- Q1 How do you put a giraffe into a fridge?
- Q2 How do you put and elephant into a fridge?
- Q3 The King of the Jungle is holding a meeting for all of the animals. One of them is not there. Which one?
- Q4 You are standing on the bank of an Alligator infested river and have to get to the other side. What do you do?
A survey by Accenture found that around 90% of Managers are likely to answer all of the questions incorrectly. Many school children under the age of six will actually get these questions right. What does this say about Management thinking? And now for the answers:
- A1 Open the fridge, put the giraffe inside, close the fridge.
- A2 Open the fridge, remove the giraffe, put the elephant inside, close the fridge.
- A3 The elephant. The elephant is in the fridge.
- A4 You swim across the river because all the alligators are attending the gathering.
I can already hear you say “Its not fair” and “they are for kids”. This is what the questions are trying to find out:
- Q1 checks to see if you try to make simple things complicated and make assumptions about problem boundaries. Nobody actually said that the fridge was not big enough to put a giraffe inside!
- Q2 tests your ability to consider previous actions. Who says that they are four separate questions?
- Q3 simply tests your memory.
- Q4 checks to see how quickly you learn. After all you must have got question 4 correct if you were a successful Senior Manager.
Try these on your colleagues and see what happens.