Talking versus doing innovation – but it still starts with talking about it
After 3 years of silence while finishing my PhD the craving for talking and writing about innovation for the benefit of the Namibian business community has once again resurfaced! I guess it is truly a case of “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” because I have once again realized how crucially important innovation is for organisations (and individuals), especially when times are tough like the ones we are currently experiencing.
I have covered a lot of information on innovation in the five years I have been writing about it for this column, and I do not want to start at the beginning again with defining the concepts etc. so this time around I really want to make it practical for our readers.
I do like theorising and talking about innovation and I have been accused many times that I am too “academic” when it comes to making innovation happen. The discussion of whether the theory or the practice comes first will be too long for this column, but let me just say a number of tried and failed business ideas and a couple of patents pending at the USPTO made me immune to comments about being too academic.
Conversely, my intention with this series is to give practical “hands on” advice for our readers, actions that they can go and try and implement straightaway after reading the articles. This intention lead me to the topic of the first article for this series, talking vs doing innovation.
Actions speak louder than words:
I have witnessed in so many organisations where leaders and people endlessly “talk the talk” about innovation, but hardly “walk the walk”. The importance of innovation is emphasized, how organisations welcome fresh ideas and change and how the organisation have to “innovate or die”.
The enthusiasm is electrifying and whiteboards are vibrant with strategic plans and flipcharts are ablaze with the next big ideas, and after all the hype, when the dust settles, everybody goes back to their business-as-usual activities and deep-rooted routines. If you visit the same organisation 3 months later, it is like Bill Murray living the same day over and over again in the movie Groundhog Day (those who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s will remember…) – nothing has changed. The moment someone wants to actually change something after the big hype to kick-start the new Innovation Revolution, it is met with resistance and pushback from all fronts.
So how does one move from talking to doing innovation? Well the answer is simple, you do it s-l-o-w-l-y. Let me compare it to running a marathon. You don’t go from laying on the couch to running a marathon in a week. No, you start slowly and you take small actions at first, and gradually add up the distance. For example, when you commit to running a marathon, you don’t go and run 10 kilometres the first day. No, the first day you just walk one kilometre. Then you repeat that for a week or two. Then you increase it to one and a half kilometres for the next couple of weeks, where you walk one kilometre and jog 500 metres, then the next couple of weeks you do 2 kilometres.
You get the picture. Also while you are progressing on your distance, you realize that you need new running shoes, because your feet starts to hurt when you run more than five kilometres, because you have the wrong shoes for long distance running. Then you talk to experienced joggers and they teach you that you also have to do other exercises to run a marathon, e.g. exercises to strengthen your core and leg muscles, half-way to the deadline you start changing your diet, because you’ve learned which foods keeps you going for longer. You get the idea? You don’t do all these things on day one. You have to start small, increase the distance slowly but steadily and learn and adapt as you progress.
It is the same with innovation, you don’t go from doing something the same way for the last 15 years to putting a man on the moon in one week. You have to take small steps to teach the organisation (i.e. the people in the organisation) the skills, practices and new routines on how to innovate. During the journey you try new things, you fail, and you learn new and better ways of doing things (like changing your running shoes). You start by changing one small routine and implementing one small idea or making one small improvement to a process, and you learn what works and what doesn’t and you learn from other people and your “innovation muscles” get stronger and you start taking on bigger and more complex projects.
Now I hope and trust that most of our readers’ organisations are already on the innovation journey and has made some progress on exercising your “innovation muscles”, but here are a few ideas on small steps that you can take to get off the couch and on the road to complete your innovation marathon.
Identify one process and try to improve it in an incremental manner. Try to select the process that most people are complaining about (yes, that one…) and choose one dimension that you want to improve, e.g. reduce it from 10 steps to 8 steps; from 15 minutes to complete step x to 12 minutes; from 20 fields to complete on page x to only 15 fields.
Challenge all departments to identify one process and come up with one improvement measure, and they have to report back in one week, yes, you have one week to make the change, so make sure it is a small enough one. If you haven’t started anything yet on improving innovation, ask your departments to add innovation to one of their standing meeting agendas. Put it first on the agenda, and let people just talk about innovation for 10 minutes for starters, e.g. what does innovation mean to your organisation, why are we good / not good at innovating, how are our competitors innovating. Yes, it’s only talking about innovation, but if you have done nothing about it yet, it is a good start, talking about innovation is then a form of taking action on it.
You have now gotten off the couch to take the first steps, next time I’ll talk about staying motivated. I leave you with this short but very powerful words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and inventor of (among others) the lighting rod, bifocals and swimming fins: “Well done is better than well said.”