No innovation please, we’re too busy

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a high-level manager in a financial institution. We talked about his (truly) impressive activities in the field of innovation, and then he surprised me somewhat by saying: “Next year we plan to freeze innovation activities.” Since the company is not a client of ours, I wasn’t directly affected by this decision, but still, I was curious to understand the rationale. Another victim of “the Situation”, I said to myself, but to my surprise he went on to explain: “We have so many good ideas now that we need to pause with innovation and focus on implementation.” This is, in my eyes, a symptom of one of the biggest and most common misconceptions in the field; that innovation is all about coming up with ideas of what to do (products, services, whatever it is you do). The corollary of this erroneous concept is, obviously, that once you have these ideas you don’t need to be bothered with innovation any longer, all you need is to “just” implement.

In reality, the situation is nearly the oppositeThe level of innovation that needs to be invested in implementation is not lower, and very often higher, than that which is required for coming up with the ideas in the first place. But this is hardly news for anyone who is involved in the day-today of innovation within a company, such as the manager mentioned above. Why, then, is the mistake so common? It is due, I think, to the fact that people tend to see innovation as a type of activity rather than a quality of performing activities; people see innovation as an answer to the question “what are you doing?” while in fact it is the answer to “how are you doing, whatever it is that you are engaged in?” To avoid this confusion, we use a practical definition:

Innovation is the ability to think and act differently to achieve your goals.

This implies, obviously, that innovation is not limited to certain kinds of activities or contexts. Rather, it is relevant, as an option, in any situation in which a person or group of persons are engaged in a mental activity of any kind. In September, I was talking to a lady who is a director-level manager in a large company. “The last thing I need now is innovation,” she said, “We’ve just finished a successful innovation project, resulting in an amazing new product idea, which I’ve been trying to convince my VP for the past 3 months to OK, but with no success. What’s the use of innovating if they are going to kill your ideas anyway?” To me, it sounded like what she most needed was innovation. From our point of view, this was a classic case of an urgent need for some problem solving, the problem obviously being the need to convince a stubborn VP. And examples of this type are abundant: a VP who doesn’t need innovation because he “just” needs to get his division organized since they keep failing at implementing the great ideas in their pipeline; and of course, the innumerable CEOs who can’t talk about innovation now, because due to “the Situation” (COVID, supply chain, whatever) they see a decrease in sales, profits disappearing, and immediate danger to cash flow. My conclusion: all those people who are too [busy, overworked, full of ideas, engaged in a huge project] to innovate, are precisely those who are most in need of a change in the way they are handling whichever “too” they are immersed in, i.e. they are in dire need of innovation.

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