Perhaps the most popular—and misunderstood—term of the first decade of the new millennium is ‘innovation.’ A new stack of books and articles is produced every year asserting the critical importance of innovation for organizations that want to survive, especially during these challenging times. And to a large extent, I agree with that assertion. Unfortunately, most organizations in search of innovation seem to be generating as much cynicism as they are new thinking.
The problem isn’t so much that we’re over-stating the importance of innovation; it’s more about what so many leaders are doing with it. Too many of them are exhorting all of their employees to be more innovative, providing classes and workshops designed to teach everyone how to think outside the box. They’re also doing their best to include innovation on a list of core values, emblazoning the word on annual reports and hallway posters, hoping that this will inspire people to come up with new ideas that will revolutionize the long-term strategic and financial prospects of the company.
Even well-intentioned and dedicated employees are bound to respond cynically to these efforts, frustrated by what they see as hypocrisy. They just don’t perceive a genuine eagerness among leaders to embrace the new ideas of rank-and-file employees, and they’re mostly accurate in that perception. For all the talk about innovation, most executives don’t really like the prospect of their people generating new ways to do things, hoping instead that they’ll simply do what they’re being asked to do in the most enthusiastic, professional way possible. And so it is no surprise when they get pounded for preaching innovation without really valuing it.
What should leaders do? Be more open to new ideas from employees? Probably not. Better yet, they should stop over-hyping innovation to the masses and come to the realization that only a limited number of people in any company really needs to be innovative.
As heretical as that may seem to those who want to believe that “innovation is everyone’s business!”, consider that even the most innovative and creative organizations need far more people to be dutiful, enthusiastic and consistent in their work than innovative or creative.
Think about a movie set. For every writer or director or actor on the payroll, there are hordes of people who have to be technically proficient, consistent, patient and disciplined in their responsibilities. If they innovate, the project turns to chaos.
And the most creative restaurant requires the work of a single chef to design a fabulous menu, and dozens of cooks and waitresses and waiters and dishwashers who will do their job with commitment, consistency and dutifulness. If the cooks innovate, consistency is gone and customers can’t rely on what they’re going to get. Even a high tech company, regardless of what they say, doesn’t want or need its finance department or sales staff to be truly innovative.
What should leaders demand of their people, if not innovation? How about a combination of interpersonal creativity and autonomy? Creatonomy. I realize that sounds like a protein drink for body-builders, but what it means is that we need our employees to take complete responsibility to do their jobs and satisfy customers in the most effective and charismatic way possible, but within the bounds of sound business principles. For those who say, “well, that’s what we mean when we use the word ‘innovation’,” you need to realize that it’s not what your employees are hearing.
Creatonomy is something that thrives in great companies. The world’s best airlines (e.g. Southwest), quick-service restaurants (e.g. Chick-fil-A), department stores (e.g. Nordstrom) and entrepreneurial businesses excel in it. Their employees are passionate and committed and take complete responsibility for their work, consistently turning customers into loyal fans. Sure, they’re encouraged to share their ideas about new ways to work, but most of what they are known for is being great at what has already been defined as the product or service that their company offers. And most leaders I know would take that any day, even before innovation.
Now that I’ve discouraged the wholesale application of innovation within a company, I’d like to backtrack a little. There is one group of people in an organization that has to exercise the capacity for innovation, regardless of their functional area. That group is the leadership team. Those who are chartered with overseeing a company’s various departments from the top are the keepers of innovation. They are ultimately responsible for determining the boundaries of change that are acceptable, and perhaps most important of all, identifying the handful of others within their departments who have the invitation and freedom to innovate.
So, if you’re a leader, the next time you think about giving a speech or sending out an e-mail calling for your people to innovate, consider being more specific about what you really want from them. And if you really believe that your organization isn’t innovative enough, focus your efforts first on the people at the top.