In the previous article I looked at some of the myths of innovation, basically ungrounded beliefs that hamper innovation progress. This week I want to discuss the issue of taking action. One can theorise and discuss innovation until you are blue in the face, but if you don’t take action, innovation will not happen.
If you teach someone to play tennis (or any sport for that matter) you will first explain the rules of the game and how it works in general. Then you will show the trainee the equipment involved, the playing field (tennis court in this example) and lastly you will give a demonstration on how to hit the ball. All of this is necessary to teach someone how to play tennis, but if you stop there, the trainee will never know how to play tennis. Unless a person actually picks up a tennis racquet and tries to hit the ball on their own, he or she will never learn how to play tennis or become better at the game.
It is exactly the same with innovation. Talking and showing does not make innovation happen. Innovation does not happen through doing studies, preparing reports, or making presentations and recommendations. Organisations can become more innovative only if their managers are forced to innovate, experiment, succeed and learn, i.e. taking action on ideas. So the challenge then becomes to figure out how the organisation can create such an environment.
Taking a step back and breaking up innovation into its most basic building blocks, innovation has two components, generating the idea and then implementing the idea. Let me also state the fact that everybody has ideas about possible improvements in their workplace. Since I believe that every human being is inherently creative (or else we would still be living in caves…), there are thousands of such ideas — good, bad and indifferent, floating around in every organisation. But only a tiny fraction of them will ever be implemented. Why, therefore, would anyone want to invest their energy in generating more creative ideas that will never see the light of day?
For the organisation that wants to become more innovative, the challenge, then, is to figure out how to translate creative ideas into innovative action and results. Why does this translation so often fail to occur, and why do companies that have lots of ideas waiting to be implemented keep insisting they need to be more innovative?
I have previously indicated that my research is based on the progression of ideas from conception to implementation and why good ideas fall through the cracks sometimes. There are many factors that influence this, but if we look at the Pareto principle (roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes), through root cause analysis I have identified four main factors influencing the progression of ideas to implementation. These factors are: 1. Requirement for real results. Managers learn to innovate when they must achieve significant improvements in performance that are possible only through experimentation and the implementation of innovative ideas. 2. Ownership. The underlying assumption here is, “I generate great, innovative ideas and somebody else is responsible for implementing them”. The key is that the manager who has the good idea is also responsible for ensuring that it is acted upon. 3. Enactment of limitations. Sociologist Karl Weick describes this phenomenon as the passivity of managers in accepting the limits of their own private boxes. He says: “On the basis of avoided tests, people conclude that constraints exist in the environment and that limits exist in their repertoire of responses. Inaction is therefore justified by the implantation, in fantasy, of constraints and barriers that make an action ‘impossible’.” 4. Assistance from others. While a person can be creative and generate new ideas alone, the implementation of ideas typically depends upon the approval, support and resources of others.