BREAKTHROUGH COLUMN: Innovation Blues

THE STARK truth about innovation is this: “Innovation takes an awful lot of teamwork.” These are the words of Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter in an interview by Kermit Pattison published in http://www.fastcompany.com. Kanter described the pitfalls in innovation and how to avoid them in a 2006 Harvard Business Review article, “Innovation: The Classic Traps.

Creativity and innovation have long been mistakenly assumed to be the handiwork of just one inventive individual. True, creative ideas are born in one individual’s brain as creativity guru Dr. Robert Epstein rightly pointed out. However, before a creative idea becomes an innovative product or service that is widely accepted by the market, it goes through a process wherein the whole organization or a group of people carries the idea in its “organizational womb” and finally gives birth to it after much study, preparation and hard work. To illustrate, unknown to many, Thomas Edison, who has been credited with a lot of inventions which we now use, had a slew of experts and financiers who worked together to develop and bring these inventions to the market.

Author Andrew Hargadon distinguished creativity from innovation on this particular point. He said that while creativity is an individual process, innovation is a social one. This may perhaps be one of the reasons why only one out of 20,000 creative ideas get to be born as an innovative product or service. The other 19,999 ideas don’t get the support of the rest of the organization or a group of people who have the necessary resources to champion and sponsor the creative idea.

I have seen and experienced many examples of creative ideas that got squished into non-existence because the ideas were either reluctantly accepted or even rejected outright by the various departments that needed to bring the idea to reality. In a class I conducted for Organizational Development practitioners, many of them shared their difficulties in bringing out new ideas in their organizations and having these approved by their management. They said there were sure to be not just critics but opponents of the proposed changes.

What was the common reason? The “not made here” label.

Human beings, especially heads of departments in an organization, are often an envious and competitive lot. When an idea gets hatched somewhere in the organization (not “made” by them or in their department) that gets the nod of the head of the company, chances are resistance to its implementation automatically develops. As an example, one of my previous projects managed to survive and even thrive for six years while the major departments dragged its feet in its support for it even though it was well accepted by the market. The other project lasted only a year before it got “killed.

I am not saying all creative ideas are good ones and must always be supported. Critics do have a role to play in screening out bad ideas from good ones. Sometimes, a creative idea might be something new but produces damaging results for the organization, especially if the idea is rammed down the throats of everyone in the organization. This usually happens when the idea comes from somewhere in the higher echelons of management. Those in the lower rung would be hesitant in expressing their reservations, if any, to such an idea. In such situations, resistance to change (especially a negative one) would surely ensue which may result in resignations, demoralization, dilution of product excellence, declining sales or rising costs. I have seen a leader in an industry lose its top position because of bad judgments in launching new products. Fortunately, the problem was immediately diagnosed and the appropriate steps taken to bring back the organization to the top of the industry.

As a creativity and innovation trainer, my natural inclination would be to always support new ideas. However, let me give creativity advocates a bit of cautionary advice: make sure your creative ideas make it to the market by engaging everyone in the organization in the birth of the innovation.

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in Asian Quality, 2008 issue.

Photo credit: www.sxc.hu

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