Innovate – If You Have Permission

Innovation (Innovative): The successful application of a new and or improved method or technology to meet a requirement, articulated or not.  What leaders want more of, while rationing the permission to do it.  Also, a term that will appear, and be used somewhere within a job description, job application, and an interview – probably more than once.  The scale of innovation will not defined. It may be incrementally small or transformationally large.  A ‘large‘ innovation is likely to lead to a waterfall of smaller innovations. Mimicry is a common form of innovation – applying a  known idea but in a new setting. Mimicry is almost hard-wired into us and is one of our earliest learning strategies.

Failed innovation will optionally be referred to as a lesson or just as likely, reckless experimentation, incompetence, unnecessary risk-taking or some other term that can be career limiting. Risk taking is inherent to most innovations.

It is not unusual for innovations to be occurring in an organisation or even a society without people paying too much attention. In part, this is because many of the innovations are incremental and once absorbed, quickly become the new norm and forgotten. It generates an apparent contradiction between the “Nothing ever changes around here.” and “It’s just so different these days.” Forgetting innovations occur and accrue very quickly. These types of innovations are not likely to be career limiting. It is the bigger more noticeable ones that have that possibility.

Before a 3 month debriefing of a planning workshop, I did some homework to find out what had actually been implemented.  Just as well. Once at the workshop the participants were asked what had changed?  Had they implemented anything from the workshop?  Initial responses were quite negative.  “Nothing has changed.”  In fact, there seemed, at least amongst some participants, a determination to label the planning session a failure.  We then revisited a number of the agreed planning items.  The response began to change.  “Oh yeah! We did do that.” or “We’ve started working on it.”  Like the child who on coming home from school to answer the question, “What did you do today?” with “Nothing!” our memory and experience seem to fail us or perhaps we are asking and answering the wrong question. 

All businesses are built around processes.  As such they will need to maintain the tension between the forces demanding predictable stable systems and processes and those forces demanding innovation, adaptation, and change shaped by context (environment, market etcetera).  These forces will play out so as to define the parameters in which innovation will occur.  One of the most important parameters is the level of permission and power a person has to innovate and make changes?  Authority (delegations), structures, status and job design can all be used to minimize innovation – and generally are.  Workshops that reframe and question processes, issues and problems often give the participants the permission and opportunity to innovate – even if only for the duration of the workshop. Workshops can also introduce world-views that are not part of the modus operandi of a business. These world-views can assist participants to reframe issues and reach new conclusions. This does not mean a new world-view will become part of the fabric of the organisation. Deeply neurotic organisations will find defensive routines to return the status quo.

Note: Not all change is innovation. Not all innovation is good. Not all resistance to change is irrational.

Peter O’Reilly ©

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Filed under Change Management, Corporate Culture & Strategy

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