Are you struggling to get your new initiatives off the ground? Do you wish your organization was more nimble and entrepreneurial? Do you yearn to build a team of people who don’t need a rule-book … people who can handle ambiguity? Do you daydream about having a team of fearless innovators who bring you great ideas, and then leap into action to make their ideas a reality?
OK, fine, it’s good to have goals.
But if you don’t work in that kind of environment right now, are you sure you know what innovation really looks like … up close and personal? And when you interview an innovator, just what exactly should you look for? And after you hire them, will your office be like the set of Mad Men?
If you’re looking for someone with a history of serendipitous moments, where the innovation muse whispers brilliance into their ear, the cosmos align, the sun bursts through the fog and birds start chirping, you will be looking for a very long time. As children we all heard the tale of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, causing a supposedly sudden insight into his theory of gravity. But few of us heard what Mr. Newton was doing prior to that famous moment. So does innovation look like blindingly brilliant moments of fruit-inspired inspiration? Or does it look more like the part of the story that happened before the apple fell?
Sorry kids, strokes of genius are really tiny–more like pointillist painting than the broad-brush conversational style used in most executive suites. If you want to hire an innovator, don’t look for a fast-talker with grandiose ideas, they will not go the distance. As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it, “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”
Instead of hiring a big talker, seek out someone who can methodically and painstakingly take tiny, unconnected painted dots (ideas) and form them into a bigger (and more interesting) picture. Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, calls this the “Myth of Epiphany.” As he puts it, “Epiphany stories project illusions of certainty since they’re always about successful ideas. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it.”
Other researchers have also concluded that innovation is a far more arduous process than most of us are led to believe. Keith Sawyer describes how one researcher set out to chronicle Eureka! moments only to find that good ideas are actually built upon bit-by-bit. Peter Sims studied Pixar and the creative process used by world-class architects and comedians. Here is what he said:
“It may take Chris Rock six months to a year to develop one hour of comedy, and he does it by just scribbling ideas down on sheets of paper, going into these clubs unannounced and sitting down in a very relaxed, casual way with the audience, so that they know that, “Hey, this is not Chris Rock in prime time. This is Chris Rock in development mode.” He’ll just start riffing with the audience and he’ll bomb. It will be awkward at times. But what he’s doing is he’s looking for just a little hint as to where a hidden joke might be, and, once he finds that, then he keeps on that idea and keeps iterating, keeps improving, tweaking, until it becomes more and more a joke that he can use in his routine.”
Chris Rock knows many of his joke ideas will bomb. More importantly, he knows that’s completely OK. He revises and edits his material until he arrives at the tightly crafted sets we see on HBO. Breakthrough ideas and innovations are built on foundations of mistakes and dead ends. Innovation is surprisingly methodical, as it emerges over time out of “peripheral” knowledge, or out of seemingly irrelevant ideas.
Even on TV, innovation does not look so easy:
What appears to be an effortless flash of brilliance in this clip did not come out of nowhere (though the timing is fortunate). Prior to the dramatic scene, Don Draper had spent the entire episode scribbling countless pitch ideas onto napkins, only to decide they were all terrible.
So how do you build a more innovative organization?
First, make sure your team understands what innovation looks like. Share this quiz with your team to start the conversation. Recognize that innovation is thoughtful, deliberate, metric-driven execution. It’s experimenting, learning, and moving forward. It’s working on the right problem, eliminating distractions, and looking for new information that might teach you something, or challenge your assumptions. Innovation is not brainstorming, to be an innovator, you have to ship. You have to put your ideas into the world.
Second, focus on the language you use. Scott Berkun argues that “innovation” is a junk word that you should drop entirely, because there are too many theories about what it means. “Unless you are taking the time to ensure everyone in the room uses these words to mean the same thing it’s jargon – the words fail to convey meaning.” Instead of grandiose language, focus on precise, common language. As Berkun puts it,
“Pretentious words like gamechanging, breakthrough, radical, paradigm-shift, and transformative are used by people trying hard to impress someone. People doing good work let their work speak for itself. Great teams drop pretense in favor of simple words like prototype, experiment, problem, solution, user, customer, lesson and design. Simpler language accelerates progress. Inflated language slows it down and confuses people on what the goals are.”
Third, consider structuring your physical office environment to better promote creativity and idea generation — even among those employees that you wouldn’t normally consider creative types. Tailor the specific methods to how your team operates, but try to engage thinkers with different skill sets from across your organization. Google puts an “ideas board” on a wall in a well-traveled hallway. One engineer puts a problem or idea on the board. Others then take a look. If they’re interested, they often get involved and try to tackle the unfamiliar problem, sometimes coming up with answers to large, seemingly insurmountable problems after only a few days.
By promoting collaborative problem solving, Google taps into another recommended method for unlocking innovation — reframing the problem and asking new and different questions. Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Google’s Ideas Board encourages people to ask different questions, or get help doing so. Otherwise, a struggling engineer can get stuck looking at a problem from the same 3 close-up angles — when all they needed was the birds-eye view offered by their colleague at the other end of the hallway.
Fourth, make sure your financial strategy is aligned with your new goal of increased innovation. It’s often said that the essence of strategy is picking the right problem to solve, then creating time for it by “sunsetting” work that is either no longer relevant, or not creating enough value. So once you’ve selected the business problem you plan to solve, innovation involves making a lot of resource allocation decisions. In the words of management guru W. Edwards Deming: “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
How is innovation supported and rewarded by the structures of your organization? Do you provide time for innovation among your staff and executives? Does your budgeting allow any room for innovative new projects? In many organizations, the rewards for success are minimal, and the punishments for failure are extreme.
Fifth, after you’ve created the right environment for innovation to thrive, start hiring people who love to work on the kinds of challenges you face. Don’t look for pedigree or titles, look for people who are obsessed with achieving the results you want.