Innovation… Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

It’s human nature to prefer stability, though there’s a blurry line between comfort and stagnation. What leader doesn’t strive for a well-planned, smooth-running organization with reliable systems and predictable results? How can such a good thing be a recipe for disaster: bureaucracy, which creeps in like any habit with repeated practice. Change may seem risky, but not changing is riskier. 

Jim Colliins begins his mega-successful book, Good to Great, with “Good is the enemy of great…the vast majority of companies never become great, precisely because the vast majority become quite good – and that is their main problem.”

Our brains are naturally pattern-forming; we don’t think about things we do frequently, like brushing our teeth or driving to work. We get comfortable doing many things on autopilot. 

Businesses, too, after a few successful years, get comfortable. The more experience and internal know-how, the less likely we are to seek change. If it ain’t broke…

Is your organization too restrained to improve something that “ain’t broke”? All people have natural inhibitors that prevent us from looking for something better when we’re happy. Why waste time when we could direct out attention to fixing a problem? Exactly!

Create the culture
To create a culture that inspires everyone’s highest performance in all critical areas of business, encourage people to welcome questions, even when they don’t seem to make sense. We need to understand that questioning a belief or practice doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Try these starter questions: 

  • Does our culture emphasize what our customers want? (what do they want?)
  • Do we have values that help create a sense of identity and clear expectations here?
  • Are we good at reading the business environment and changing our ways as trends change?
  • Do we spend enough time anticipating future changes?
  • How can we become better at interpreting signals from the environment and converting them into opportunities for encouraging innovation, acquiring new knowledge, and developing new capabilities?  

In many organizations I visit, employees see innovation and creativity as someone else’s job. They believe their job is to do the job their manager wants – that’s it. Their focus, rightly so, is on making the numbers and achieving their goals. While making the numbers is necessary, that thinking is limiting.

Who is responsible for growth?

Today’s 21st Century business dynamics demand everyone, regardless of department or position, be responsible for growth:

  • Challenge people in accounting to find a better way to present information so it promotes faster business decisions;
  • Ask truck drivers to suggest ideas to re-organize their delivery routes to improve both efficiency and customer service;
  • Encourage machine operators to brainstorm about tooling or material flow;
  • Invite retail clerks to offer their opinions about what the public wants, which can be used to design displays or promote merchandise.

At one innovative company, the CEO requires all managers to submit at least three ideas a month to improve the business. After thesesaw how serious this CEO was, and what a big deal he made about people’s ideas, you can believe they all take his request seriously. 

Economist Kenneth Arrow said 25 years ago: “Innovation is in many cases simply a question of putting an item on the agenda before other firms do.”  To build a strong culture, leaders must attend not just to strategy and technology, but to social patterns and practices that encourage innovation. Achieving an innovation-minded culture can become a tremendous competitive advantage because, for some strange reason, few organizations take the time to do it. 


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