How to make innovation work (and not let work kill innovation)

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // September 15, 2017 

It’s rare to hear someone express that they actively work against innovation. Most of the time, you hear the concept of innovation praised by business and civic leaders. Conferences, books and entire sections of media publications are devoted to what innovation is, how we innovate and why we should innovate. Innovation’s virtues are extolled as the future.

And yet, many organizations, and more specifically many folks in positions of authority, kill innovation softly through the mundane daily routines of work. It’s not as if anyone sets out to kill innovation. Many well-intentioned individuals believe in good conscience that they are facilitating innovation. But much like personal relationships that degrade over time due to emotional malnourishment, the innovative culture of an environment can degrade with three very subtle oversights that effectively starve those who might possibly innovate.

1) Expect innovation to happen within folks’ strengths not their weaknesses.

We live in a culture that has come to generally embrace the idea that there is potential in everyone (the “if you dream it, you can do it” mantra). And while that is true on some level, we more often than not apply the same type of potential to everyone.

For instance, when it comes to the concept of innovation, we broadly apply our expectations of potential to everyone without regard to their actual aptitude for that particular discipline (I use the word discipline here intentionally, because innovation is a discipline, but that is a topic for another article). We treat innovation like a generalist skill (similar to the misguided idea that since everyone learns to write in school to complete assignments, everyone must have the inherent potential to be a writer).

However, it is not a generalist skill. While innovation is sometimes stumbled upon, it is mostly the result of inherent aptitude, polished skills, opportunity and a conducive environment. Too often, when improper expectations are placed on folks who don’t possess strength, or at least potential strength, in the realm of innovation, we inadvertently cause them to whither in the sun rather than thrive.

Just as both introverts and extroverts are equally valuable, but shouldn’t be confused as being energized by the same things, so too there are innovators and implementers. Expecting an implementer to innovate will result in frustration at the very least and more likely will result in failure.

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2) Govern your reactions. 

While the previous point may not be that surprising to you, this next one has taken me years to learn (and I still have a long path ahead of me).

There is a ton that gets communicated in our reactions to the efforts that others make and share with us. Intentionally or not, consciously or not, we train others through our reactions. This swings both ways, positive and negative. And with each even tiny reaction that we deliver, we influence the ways in which others proceed.

It’s much like parenting. When we show interest in what our children cherish, we validate their choice. When we criticize (without the motive of being constructive and encouraging), we cause them to doubt their choice and even worse doubt themselves.

Innovation is particularly tricky in this regard, because by its very nature, innovation is perched on the edge of the unknown. That is a fragile, or at least unstable, place to be. It’s difficult enough given the inherent uncertainty, but it can be a near impossible place to be in the face of unconstructive reactions.

It’s important to note in terms of being practical, that it is often remarkably difficult to govern one’s reactions in a positive way when you are under stress or mentally scattered. Most of my poor reactions occur at these times, and I cause others to lose confidence in themselves or confidence in me as a facilitator of innovation.

3) Cultivate small wins into more small wins that incrementally grow into larger wins.

If you lead just about anything, you probably expect, or at least hope for, significant progress as soon as possible. The reality is that we can crush others in this expectation. The most effective methods of innovation utilize an emphasis on small wins. Another way of putting it is incremental success. Small wins focus on achievable goals and then use the momentum of the successful accomplishment of that goal to spring toward the next achievable goal. All the while, you have the opportunity to authentically praise other’s efforts, which spur them on to achieving the next milestone.

Eventually, a critical mass is “achieved” and a productive inertia is established. That’s when larger wins start to come into focus on the horizon.

Like many things in life, we may already know the information. The devil is in the details of “doing.” And we must remind ourselves of these simple truths on a regular basis if we are to cultivate a culture of innovation rather than a culture that unintentionally harms the very thing we cherish.