Innovating When Your Organisation Isn’t Innovative

One problem that I consistently run into when I talk to people about innovation is that they often feel stifled. How can you be innovative when you’re operating in a culture that isn’t innovative? This is a consistent problem for people working in the public service, as well for those in industries that seem relatively stable. Robert Sutton from Stanford has a few ideas about how to work around this problem from a manager’s perspective – here’s a 6 minute clip from a longer talk of his (you can get to all of the parts of the talk here):

That section is called ‘Two Weird Ideas that Work’, and I think that they are both pretty correct. The first is to encourage people to ignore and defy superiors and peers. This has two sides. The first is that people that are viewed as managers that encourage innovation are those that have less direct involvement with the day-to-day activities of their team – instead they function as a shield to protect them from the rest of the organisation (Management by Getting out of the Way!). The second part is that the people that actually are more innovative have a much higher tendency to break the rules. Sutton has a couple of examples, including people at Atari that actively lied to their managers while they built the games that kept the firm in business, and Chuck House at HP, who developed the oscilloscope against the direct order of David Packard, among others. When it was launched in the late 60s, it ended up being a huge success for the firm.

The second weird idea is don’t try to learn anything from people that say they have solved the exact same problems you face. Sutton cites research that shows that it is usually more successful to bring in new knowledge from a related but different field. If you try to learn from experts in your own field, you’re likely to simply make the existing products and services better, not come up with something new. This reinforces the point I’ve made before about the value of learning by analogy – you get better ideas by finding solutions to people that have solved problems similar to yours, not those who have solved identical ones.

There are two practical take away lessons here. The first is that if you are working in a non-innovative environment, you just have to figure out a way to execute new ideas on your own. Do as much as you can get away with. Yes, there is risk in this approach – but that’s part of innovation.

The second lesson is that if you are a manager in a non-innovative environment, you have to figure out a way to give your team the space they need to execute new ideas. Again, there is risk here. But if you take a risk-management approach to innovation, your odds of success are pretty close to zero. So my call to you is this: go out and try something new, even your organisation hates innovation. It’s the only way to make things better.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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