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Why is it Hard to Innovate?

For over a hundred years, children and adults have experienced school pretty much the same way: a teacher presents material (concepts, problems, content) to a group of students, and then assigns homework. While the internet sometimes changes the delivery method, the same lecture/practice approach still permeates how we are educated.

Certainly, many have wondered, “Is there a better way?” Within education, the status quo—lecture delivery, then assigned practice—has been mostly impermeable to innovation, or new ways of doing things. Business workplaces suffer from the same tension between innovation and the status quo.

So what IS innovation, and why is it so difficult? Innovation is changing the way we do something that we currently do. While invention (creating something altogether new) can be planned and directed, changing well-established routines usually happens informally, and can be more difficult to bring about—witness the typical school classroom. There is almost always considerable resistance to changing the current way of doing things, the status quo.

In addition, there are many myths surrounding creativity—the human trait that leads to innovation. It is important to note that despite the common assumption, creativity is not held only by a select few. Even though creativity is often attributed to people who work in artistic fields, the trait is widely held and can be applied in professional settings of all types and by all people. Unfortunately, many managers fail to encourage innovation because they simply don't understand how creative people can be when it comes to improving how things are done.

Researcher Daniel Pink reports on research that reveals the nature of innovation is usually ignored or misunderstood by the managers crying out for it. Some Cornell University investigators set up an experiment where two groups of participants were provided with an escape scenario. One group was asked to imagine themselves as the prisoner, while the other group imagined someone else as the prisoner. The findings, where those thinking for someone else figured out the problem more often, led the researchers to conclude “people were faster and more creative when they tackled the problem on behalf of others rather than for themselves.”1 Translating this to the workplace, innovation is more likely to occur when people share their problems and frustrations, and seek fresh, objective perspectives.

Pink cites another experiment by Teresa Amabile of Harvard where 23 painters and sculptors were asked to randomly select 10 of their commissioned works and 10 non-commissioned. She presented all the pieces to a panel of art experts who evaluated them. The non-commissioned works were rated as significantly more creative. In fact (perhaps starting with 3M decades ago), many companies have capitalized on human creativity to turn the “non-commissioned” activity of workers into new ways of doing things (innovation) or into new things altogether (invention). Workplaces that not only allow but encourage non-commissioned work are most likely to lead to creativity, and therefore innovation.

If "necessity is the mother of invention," then frustration is the mother of innovation. Doing things differently can often lead to considerable gains in efficiency, effectiveness and economy, but managers must encourage innovation to overcome the natural inertia of how things are currently done.

The status quo can be enduring in part because it can be taught so well. In-house training programs are very good at teaching processes and procedures that are well known and well entrenched. Innovation cannot be “taught” in a training module; innovation occurs at the point of frustration where the work is done, and it is initiated by the people who feel the frustration.

As indicated by the studies cited by Pink, and what we know about innovation and creativity, workplaces could benefit by adopting a few of the following practices:

  • Encourage collaboration at the point where work is being done – where the frustration is being felt. Sharing problems with others who are not locked into one perspective can unleash creativity.

  • Encourage non-commissioned work, where workers have autonomy and permission to try new things outside the structure of the status quo. In fact, creativity is less likely when there is an attempt to formalize it (setting up an "innovation department").

  • Allow people to experiment with how they might do differently some practice they are currently doing.
Returning to the example of education, Pink describes one teacher who did not accept the lecture/practice sequence. This math teacher flipped things by recording his lectures so students could view them as “homework,” and then used class time for them to work on problems and explore concepts under the facilitation of the teacher.

This can be done in business as well. For example, when author Seth Godin was frustrated by barriers to traditional publication, he had the idea to first publish e-books to establish a market, and then to follow up successful e-books with traditional hardcovers (i.e., collectibles) later.

So think of frustration as an opportunity, encourage employees to think creatively about alternative ways of doing things, and enjoy the benefits of innovation!

1Daniel Pink, The Flip Manifesto, 2012, http://danpink.s3.amazonaws.com/FLIP-Manifesto.pdf

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