Innovation – the hardest steps

Many companies are ill equipped for the trial-and-error process that is part of real innovation. They stumble in the first steps, the first few yards.

These first steps are a critical period when an idea moves from concept to paper and then to market, where it will fly or fail, and maybe take a company with it. It is the most fragile time for a new idea, because every great new idea is partly right and partly wrong. Because of this one of the most critical skills for both individuals and an organisation is the reduction of uncertainty.

When starting out you must be systematic about what you do, if not you are vulnerable on several counts. The first is getting discouraged and quickly giving up, or if you can’t identify the things you are doing wrong, spending a lot of time and money pursuing what ultimately proves to be a fatally flawed strategy.

You can also get lost or sidetracked when something that you thought was a great opportunity turns out not to be so. It is also common to put the wrong people in charge of a project, people without the right technical skills or perhaps lacking the managerial skills  to handle the uncertainty and ambiguity that will exist for a while.

You or your business may simply run out of ‘innovation fuel’. We tend to be optimistic about the money and time needed to go from concept to world beating product or service. Innovation costs more and takes longer!

Many businesses often try to run before they can walk. They have a great idea and have produced prototypes or maybe pilot production lines. They have not quite got the recipe or the economics right but cross their fingers and hope that all goes well when they quadruple their output!

These are all things that any individual or business may fall foul of but there is one last thing that lies in wait for large corporations. They all sit on the bottoms, sifting through large piles of paper. They make plans to innovate but never take action. When their endless planning meetings fail to deliver they conclude that innovation has failed them.

Innovation is essentially a trial and error process until you have got that idea into production so without action there is no trial, with no trial there is no error and with no error there is no learning.

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Creativity – Do You Really Get The Creative Stuff?

You like creative ideas, do you not?  After all you are reading this article. I expect if you were to ask friends and colleagues, you would discover that they like creative ideas too. At least that is what they would say as it is expected of us in this day and age. Most people say that they like creative ideas and then convince themselves that it is true.

The problem is that despite what they say, many people do not like creative ideas. When put under pressure in the workplace their feelings become more pronounced. It seems that the ambiguity and uncertainty cause people to feel unsafe and hence creative ideas are banished.

This has implications for innovation and in particular idea generation processes. When directed to generate creative ideas, participants may subconsciously reject them in favour of safer and more seemingly practical ideas. This could lead to incremental rather than radical improvements despite our best intentions.

So how come people have such negative feelings about creative ideas? When promoting or sponsoring a new idea, people can experience failure, visions of risk, rejection or humiliation when presenting the idea to others, and uncertainty about when their idea will ever become reality. Uncertainty is something that many of us will strive strongly to reduce. Hence, people can have negative associations with novelty and hence creative ideas.

Failure, risk and rejection are strong emotions but in a recession when people are worried about their jobs, stressed over long hours or wondering how they will manage their social lives, it is not surprising that any action that could lead to failure, risk and rejection would be considered synonymous with “pain”!

If uncertainty makes creative ideas seem less acceptable then in times of uncertainty you will encounter increased anti creative feelings which is exactly the opposite of what our organisations need right now. This will severely hinder any innovation process. Another undesirable side effect is the way in which these negative feelings impact on self censorship. Before anyone suggests an idea in a brainstorming session, submits it to an idea management system or proposes it to their manager, they need to make a decision in their own mind whether to voice the idea or keep it to themselves. The logical assumption from our discussion so far is that people will censor their ideas even more. So how do we get the great ideas that help us through the recession?

The big question is how can we make creative ideas (or the thought of them) more attractive in the eyes of our colleagues and bosses? Once way we can do this is to remove anxiety over rejection. To do this we can ensure people that we are generating multiple ideas, all of which will have merits, and one or more may be implemented. This prevents people from holding back on the basis that their idea is not good enough to be ‘the one’. Also building techniques may help here so that rather than a group continuously generating multiple ideas, they can help to build one really good and well formed idea.

In addition, reducing the fear of creativity requires that you reduce the perceived risk of failure and rejection. It is no coincidence that firms like Apple and Google, where the leaders are truly enthusiastic about creative idea, have the most success with creativity. Likewise, innovative start-ups, led by creative founders, often boast highly creative teams in their early years. In other words, if your CEO does not simply espouse the importance of innovation, but goes out on a limb themselves with creative ideas, it will doubtless make people below them feel less frightened of creative ideas.

Creating an environment where having your idea rejected is a positive thing would doubtless be great. But this is more easily said than done. Other actions associated with a culture of innovation are likewise likely to make people more comfortable with creative ideas.

Distancing people from a problem can result in a higher level of creativity since this is reducing the amount of censorship. This could be via abstraction, making a problem less concrete, or taking people physically away from the problem. One such way of achieving this is to change perspective by pretending to be outside your organisation, perhaps a competitor. For instance, “what could your competitor do that would keep you awake at night with worry?” or “What is the most threatening new product idea your competitors might put on the market?”.

If people have difficulty gaining acceptance for creative ideas especially when more practical and unoriginal options are at hand, we may need to shift our efforts from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognise and accept creativity.

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