Innov, already?

Here’s a suggested experiment for managers: forget about innovation.

Lots of people will be horrified at this suggestion believing it’s vital for senior managers to drive innovation in organisations.

In my experience pressure from on high to come up with ideas usually just stops people from expressing them.

That’s partly because of the corrosive effects of power, which seems to lead to all manner of uncomfortable forms of compliance and deference, as well documented by Bob Sutton here: It isn’t just a myth, power turns people into assholes.

In his ChangeThis manifesto, Matthew May desciribes an experiment showing how senior people unconsciously squash the ideas of those with lower status. (Short version blogged here)

(Coincidentally, Richard Oliver has been recalling the benefits of management by absence.)

It’s also because I think the demand for innovation tends to reflect a scarcity model of the world, as if there aren’t nearly enough ideas out there. I’d argue there’s no shortage of ideas, but a serious, if all too human tendency, not to notice them. What’s more, that scarcity mindset contributes to often futile “brainstorming” games in which loads of ideas get generated that no-one actually cares about.

Instead, why not talk a little about the things you notice and care about, and listen a lot for what other people notice and care about. Once people talk about the concrete things of their experience, it’s actually pretty natural for ideas for improvement to emerge.

But all this high status talk about driving innovation probably just makes people nervous and simply more reluctant to talk about real needs and concerns.

And my advice to anyone with the job title “Head of Innovation” would be: get a new job title.

5 thoughts on “Innov, already?

  1. James Gardner

    As someone with the title you mention, I have to agree with you that top down approaches to innovation tend to have the effect you descrube. That’s why we’re trying to do the oppososite.

  2. Robert Poynton

    Is it really the pursuit of innovation that is the problem, or is it how we go about it? As I understand the ecological perspective (I think I gleaned this from ‘The Beak of the Finch’ by Jonathan Weiner) in nature organisms have to keep changing as the ecological landscape changes. The niches that organisms occupy are constantly changing or being eroded so unless you ‘innovate’ you will ended up stranded and eventually you become extinct.

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments. Rob, I think it’s partly about how we use language but I suppose I’m saying innovation happens naturally in response to our environment whereas a lot of innovation processes seem forced and, er, inorganic.

  4. Robert Poynton

    I think that’s right. Innovation as a way of life (or death) versus innovation as a planned instrument, programmed and controlled (as in ‘innovation programmes’).


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