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Opening Management to Innovation and Agility

When staff is trained in innovation, they can find the gates closed by conservative and risk-averse management. Innovation has to be an investment at all managerial levels. The culture of many organizations includes a contradiction that has stymied many efforts to innovate. The contradiction is that the organization wants and needs innovation to solve recognized problems, yet the organizational culture is conservative by nature and doesn't want the skeleton of the organization stretched beyond recognition.

Making Change in Conservative Corporate Cultures:

Most organizations perceive problems as blockages that have to be broken through. The innovative approach is to view problems as opportunities that require and invite change. Yet change is often something organizations pay lip service to, but frequently fear and inhibit.

  • Innovation is often the product of a team effort in which the team creates the solutions. However, organizations usually evaluate employee productivity based on individual, not team effort. Many organizations don't know how to recognize and reward team effort.

Corporate cultures and methods have evolved out of a pattern of consistent survival. Notable innovation often looks disruptive and therefore dangerous.

  • The challenge for innovators is to include risk management in their scenario. Human beings are not averse to risk, but we are averse to loss. Often small organizations are able to disrupt established industry because they begin with an innovative business culture and have not developed a set path to success. The larger and more successful an organization, the more it has to lose.
  • The answer is to make your most daring proposals early in your innovative development when there is less to lose. Focus on small bets. Tom Peters once encoded that philosophy by saying, "Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast."

Organizations sometimes underline their fear of innovation by singling out one innovator and ignoring or even inhibiting others. The knee-jerk reaction to innovation in a conservative corporate culture is to have an "Innovator of the Year" contest, which pours recognition on one individual or team that produced innovation within the confines of the culture but ignores and demotivates others. The innovator of the year is often the one whose success is instantly visible. Innovation is often a gamble, a kind lottery. Organizations can remain vibrant and focused on learning by ensuring that they do not punish those who try and fail. Attempts at innovation that don't succeed often contain the seeds of future success, and new knowledge to guide future innovation.

Getting Managers to Back Innovation:

For managers, innovation is a paradox. They know they need to innovate before  the company reaches an unsupportable dead end. On the other hand, innovation is risky, and it takes a lot of time and resources. Giving the nod to innovation means taking a step into the unknown. Saying "no" can feel safer.

Managers are in what psychologist Kurt Lewin called an "approach-avoidance conflict." They are faced with both possible negative and positive consequences. What Kurt Lewin discovered was that the negative aspects of an action show up very strongly as one gets closest to the action. The positive aspects of the action are strongest when one is at a safe distance from the action. The negative aspects are strongest when one gets closer to doing it.

Managers are attracted to an innovation when they are far from allowing it. When they get close to allowing it, their fears can drive them back. Once removed from the reality of taking the leap, they are again attracted to the innovation. This conflict drives them back and forth. If the forces of the negative and positive feelings are equally strong, approach-avoidance conflicts can be very hard to solve and may lead to paralysis for a long time. The solution is to:

  • Strengthen the positive feelings to drive the manager closer to acceptance.
  • Reduce the negative feelings until they don't drive the manager so far away.
  • Develop plans and processes that allow progress.

Training managers in the dynamics of innovation is one method of bringing them into a more innovative attitude.

  • Make the process appear more manageable within the corporate framework.
  • A concrete innovation assignment should be drawn up jointly with management outlining benefits and risks to give the innovation structure within the corporate culture.

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