Innovation Impostors: Why Some Companies Can't Walk Their Talk
“We’re innovative!” – Urgh isn’t that becoming such a company buzzword. I’m afraid to say, whenever I hear a company say this now, I’m immediately cynical. Because in most cases, the reality is, the way companies actually operate completely stifles innovation.
Innovation is alluring, everyone wants to look like they’re ahead of the curve. Working on new and special things. But ultimately the conditions required for true innovation are not something companies feel comfortable with.
It’s no lie that the need for businesses to innovate has increased as the world becomes ever more complex and globalised. Innovation is no longer something reserved for the techies of this world – it’s now an essential component for good business.
If you’re not able to adapt, evolve, or serve customer demands – there’s most likely another company out there who can do it better and quicker than you can. This is why the emergence of ‘disruptors’ has become such a phenomenon. Disruptors are quick to see a need and take action with a pace that few large companies can manage.
But it’s not just product or service where you need to be innovating. Innovation in a business comes in many forms. From improving how you operate and work together, to how you can adapt to a external challenges. For example, a global pandemic, war, or a financial crisis.
Too often when we think about innovation, we can only imagine an end product. That’s because when we hear of innovation it’s tagged alongside the word ‘invention’. But let’s be clear about this. Innovation isn’t some kind of privileged wizardy. In its essence, innovation is the practical implementation of new ideas that result in an improvement. Which means, absolutely anyone can be innovative.
The trouble is, most companies who claim and want to be more innovative, are not operating in a way that unleashes innovation.
Companies can talk about being innovative all they want, but I still see the same things happening.
An obsession with predicting and controlling everything
Control is an illusion, and prediction is a fool’s game. Yet most companies spend a huge amount of time and energy on both and enforce a culture which is based on these principles. Rigid in a belief that if we just predict better, and control even more things – better outcomes are just at the end.
Looking for certainty, when there isn’t any, and trying to create certain outcomes, where there are none. So obsessed are these companies with their controls and forecasts, that when any fragment of challenge arrives, it throws them off completely and chaos ensues.
Innovation cannot breed in such a frigid environment.
If teams are so obsessed with targets and prediction, anything that deviates from ‘the plan’ comes across as a distraction and unnecessary. Why follow a hunch when the path ahead has been paved for you?
Strategies and forecasts are dangerous. They switch people off from sensing and feeling change. They make people stubborn and immovable. And most concerningly, they create a false illusion of safety.
Limiting people's freedom and autonomy
Innovative ideas don’t come from behind a desk, or in a boardroom. They emerge from life, play, and experimentation. But how many meetings have you been in where ‘brainstorming’ was on the agenda? As if by choice, we can simply switch on the creativity lightbulb and become instant geniuses. I think not.
The more we limit people, the smaller the window for innovation.
Still, to this day, despite the immense amount of change we have experienced in the past three years, companies are still wanting to enforce how and when people work.
If a business truly honours innovation and believes in it. Then it would know that giving people more autonomy and giving them the space to have a life outside of work leads to greater creativity.
The very human way we create is through experience, risk-taking, learning, and play. Our brain takes in information, and we make connections. None of this can happen in a culture that makes people feel like caged animals.
Unnecessary bureaucracy which only deters risk
Risk is inherently linked to innovation, yet no-one is allowed to make decisions let alone take risks.
The big ‘fail’ word has gained a lot of airtime in recent years, both in wider culture, and in organisational culture. Slogans such as “fail fast and learn quickly” or “failure is success in progress”. I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard our fair few of cringeworthy mantras on failing.
But how many company cultures actually let you make mistakes or take risks in the first place?
Most risks in any company are based on decision-making. Making a decision is risky business because it could lead to failure. Where most decisions are concerned, we’re making an educated guess at what to do. Therefore, most companies move every decision up the chain of command.
Again, this can make leaders in the company feel safe and in control. But who’s to say their decision isn’t the wrong one either? Just because they sit at the top of the organisation, doesn’t mean they are infallible.
If it’s not a key person making the decision, it then gets filtered through multiple processes and procedures to further ensure that ‘the right thing’ is going to be done.
All this bureaucracy makes everything slow, and everyone frustrated.
It also tells people that risk is not a good thing and should be avoided at all costs. So, people never learn, never experience a mistake, and innovation dies alongside everyones motivation.
Strict pyramid hierarchy
While a strict pyramid hierarchy has many faults, (you can read my full blog about that here); the weakness in this system I want to focus on is innovation, and how the very operations of this model not only limit innovation but can impede it altogether.
A tendency found in many organisations with a strict pyramid hierarchy, is authority bias. This is where we overvalue ideas from the top and undervalue ideas from other areas of the company. The more weight of power they have, the greater their ideas are implemented. A natural bias begins to emerge.
It’s well-known that local knowledge is imperative to impactful ideas. Those who experience client or customers first-hand, are most likely to be the ones who have ideas about how to better serve these customers.
But the ideas from these groups are not perceived as valid, as those from the top.
The greater the power distance between top leaders and other teams, means there’s also a greater perceived risk of speaking up. The layers upon layers of management are not just ‘managing people’ they are also stifling ideas.
You may not wish to go down the route of cultural flatness, but if you’re serious about innovation, you may wish to put aside the placebo of ‘hackathons’ and other forced creative initiatives, and instead look at the very model you’re operating within.
Companies can become more innovative; they just need to stop parading and start doing something about it. If I look at even a handful of company websites the value ‘innovative’ is written across all of them. Let’s stop pretending. As a company you may desire to be innovative, but the truth is the stomach for changing how you do things all creates fear. And so first we must admit that creating an environment for true innovations makes us uncomfortable.
It’s time to take a stark look at what’s holding you back and have the courage to try something different.