Innovation is messy, sticky and unruly. It’s not law-abiding, and comes in fits and starts. One thing it absolutely isn’t is perfect and systematic.

And that’s why it tends to die in corporate entities. Efficiency Hitlers want perfect results that lead to immediate returns. Their employees tend to fear them and aim to display ‘perfect’ behaviour. That’s a recipe for the death of innovation.

Ideas don’t thrive in fear-driven, risk-averse environments. And it turns out, the freedom to struggle is crucial to innovation.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle quotes a study conducted on two groups of students. The first group took a test, and were given the feedback that they were extremely smart. The second group took the same test and were told that they had clearly worked extremely hard and tried their best.

The two groups were then given the choice of two more tests that they could take. The first test was very easy, the second much more difficult. The students who had been praised for being intelligent overwhelmingly chose to do the easy test. Why? Because they now felt that they had to uphold and defend the perception of being smart. The second group overwhelmingly chose the harder test because they wanted to show off how much they were willing to try.

When developing innovators, our emphasis should be upon how they are prepared struggle, their willingness to try hard. We should glorify the struggle, and not perfect results.

Start by telling everyone

Don’t force your innovators to surprise the efficiency Hitlers. And don’t force your efficiency Hitlers to be surprised by your innovators. Tell both groups what’s going on and what compromises will be required from both.

Usually the efficiency Hitlers will need to free up resources to help the innovators and usually they will not like this notion. So, popularise the idea that their efficiency and optimisation efforts are valued and needed, but in instalments. They need to optimise what’s happening now. Then they should get ready for everything to change, at which point they will be needed to optimise the new thing. They are not permitted to get in the way of the new thing to keep the old thing perfect- making perfect canoes at the expense of inventing the speedboat does nobody any good.

Reward behaviours, not results

The oldest tragedy in the corporate storybook is the person who was punished for trying. As a leader of an innovator, you have to treat the innovator differently from your other staff. You cannot hold them accountable for profitable results only. Leaders often face an emotional vacuum, asking themselves, ‘If I can’t hold people accountable for results, does that mean they are not accountable at all?’

No, that’s not the case. They absolutely must be held accountable. Hold them accountable for the excellence of their experiments.

Like any scientist conducting an experiment, they should formulate hypotheses, test them in real-world scenarios, analyse the results and reach conclusions. They must learn from these conclusions, then move on to the next test, swiftly and with systematic discipline.

Monitor how actively they test their ideas. How much new information are they gleaning from their experiments? What have they discovered about customer likes and dislikes, about opportunities and possibilities, as a result of their trials? These are the standards by which you should measure their performance.

To sit on a beanbag all day smoking a bong is not innovative behaviour. Formulating ideas and testing them in real scenarios, learning and moving forward as a result- that is. Hold people accountable for the quality of their experiments and the amount of new information they discover as a result. The faster and more thoroughly they generate useful, high-quality knowledge, the faster you move towards profitability.

Let your people know how they might fail – what kind of parameters they may act within. Give them boundaries and listen to them if they need the boundaries justifiably extended. Praise them when they try. Always affirm the struggle.

The wrong way to think about it: Innovation will figure itself out in my company.

The right way to think about it: I must clearly communicate the different, but complementary goals to everyone because this will create space for innovation.

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