Starving innovation

Starving innovation

I have recently been cleaning up the bookmarked articles I have stored on my computer – not something for the faint hearted! Among misfiled references, peculiar categories and bewildering placements – why, for instance, do I have the link for a black and white Mexican wrestling movie alongside the link to a website on Japanese art – I found an article from the Harvard Business Review called ‘Why Your Employees Don’t Innovate’ by David Stuart and Jordan Rodgers. I reread it and understood why I had kept it*.

Stuart and Rodgers were reporting back from a survey on innovation they had done of nearly 3,500 companies across the world. They found that although innovation was talked up by, well, nearly everyone – manager and non-manager alike – in these organisations it wasn’t actually being done as such:

“While nearly nine in ten non-managers strongly believe they ought to be involved in innovation, far fewer (roughly six in ten) say they actually are.”

Why? Turns out that managers aren’t actually backing up their visionary words by resourcing people properly:

“But how many CEOs really mean what they say? Do they truly believe that innovative work can be left to the non-management ranks – and do they give individual contributors the time and resources they need to do so?”

I have witnessed this myself. Without naming names, I could describe team meetings I have seen where management have been grandly exhorting their teams to innovate –  to be daring – but not taking into account that these same teams simply do not have the time, means or corporate culture within which to experiment or play. I have heard more than one manager in more than one place use the phrase “It is better to seek permission than to ask forgiveness.” I reckon this is a great phrase, actually. But in the instances I am thinking about it wasn’t; it was being flung in the faces of (overly) hard working people who had the reduction of risk written into their position description, work plans and KPIs, and comprehensively embedded in the narrowly focused procedures they were expected to follow.

“What we found is that although a majority of employees say innovation is everybody’s responsibility, not everyone actually gets the resources needed to innovate.”

‘Please Sir, I want some more.’ by George Cruikshank

When you speechify about innovation to people who have no time or energy to do so, and when you follow up your audacious words by prosecuting a micromanaged work process, then not only will you not get innovation but you will actually teach your team that it is a fantasy thing; something the boss craps on about but which never actually gets done.

“The problem? Most employees believe that management does not inspire them to do great work — or give them the opportunity to do so. Fewer than half of those in the lower ranks who have the chance to think through an idea believe they have access to the necessary means to execute it: money, staff, and support.”

My project management work in the arts industry was about deploying the resources of money, staff and support so that people could deliver projects of quality on time and within budget. And hopefully without setting the theatre or any of the performers on fire.

None of the projects I worked on ever had much money or large pools of resources, human or otherwise, but they were all creative and often innovative as well. So I know that innovation does not have to take a lot of money or other resources to pull off, rather it needs highly strategic deployment of these things. And, overall, it needs a carefully nurtured culture: one which creates room for play or experiments and the inevitable mistakes and mess that arise. What my work in the arts – a whole industry based on making products of the imagination tangible – taught me is this: if you want to realise that creative vision in your head then you have to follow thought with action and align the use of whatever resources you have with the expression of that vision.

*I kept the Mexican wrestling movie and the Japanese art too.

One thought on “Starving innovation

  1. You also have to hold onto your pants and be fearless, which neither the public nor private sector really do. The private sector is more disappointing – since they keep crapping on about how terrible bureaucracy is, yet are happy to drown in their own processes – but I wish government would STFU and admit that innovation is literally not their job and as you mention, is actively *against* their job.


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