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Every organization likes to think of itself as effective and innovative, but you don't have to be the latest reincarnation of Einstein to realize that's not true very often. Especially when it comes to being innovative, virtually all organizations could do better — and most could do a lot better.

The problem is that innovation has to be fostered, but more often than not it's actually discouraged.
Research on the topic points to several reasons for this. A few include:

  • The value of becoming a "learning organization" focused on constant innovation is a relatively new discovery so many leaders don't appreciate its importance.
  • Organizations of all kinds tend to focus on short-term results that can be measured easily, so long-term processes essential for sustained success get neglected.
  • Leaders at all levels are frequently risk-averse — focused on avoiding mistakes rather than charting new courses.

Whatever the relative importance of these factors and others, it's clear that risk-averse leadership actually discourages innovation — and chases people with innovative gifts out the door. If people are risk-averse because they find themselves in fear-based cultures, it's almost impossible for any helpful innovations to occur. People are too focused on protecting themselves and hiding any mistakes they make to devote any energy or insight to trying new things.

Meanwhile, people in risk-averse cultures learn very quickly that all the rewards are handed out for getting stuff done and executing flawlessly. Why experiment when no one values it and many are poised to punish it?

Of course, without experiment there can be no innovation because innovations are nothing except the outcomes of experiments. Innovation comes from trying new and different things to see if they work. When they do, it's great. When they don't, it's still good because the organization is smarter and one more dead end has been uncovered. Thomas Edison, perhaps the greatest innovator in modern times, called that progress and success.

Certainly Edison was an exception when it comes to the sheer volume of his innovations. Regrettably, he also appears to be an exception when it comes to his basic commitment to seek innovation in the first place.

We know — and if we forget, we are reminded daily — that innovation is becoming ever more important in a world of global options and instant access. It's not always essential or even important to be first. But it is essential to keep improving whatever it is we are doing, and perhaps to begin to explore the possibilities of doing new things. That calls for a culture that recognizes that mistakes are inevitable.

The key is not to avoid mistakes, but to detect them quickly while their consequences are still small, all the while making constant midcourse adjustments to move closer to the goal. It's like flying a commercial jet across country. Not so many decades ago, putting several hundred people on a jet bound for a destination thousands of miles away was a pipedream. Today it happens thousands of times a day — and 95 percent of the time, every single one of those jets is off course.

The deviations are due to turbulence that did not exist and could not be predicted when the plane took off.

The only way a pilot can avoid those unpredictable forces would be to stay on the ground. That, of course, is a risk-free but also useless response. Instead, the ability to respond and adjust to unexpected forces is built into navigation systems is such a way that the systems perform almost flawlessly and the planes land where they intended to land.

Achieving innovation is about making a commitment, trusting, developing and encouraging people, taking small, calculated risks and monitoring performance closely to adjust quickly to unexpected outcomes. When we all feel as safe at work as we do getting on a commercial jet, perhaps we will see much more innovation where we work. It's either that or crash and burn.

Copyright © 2010 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site: http://www.yeshualeader.com.

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