Three Lies Business Leaders Tell About Innovation
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
I've been up to my neck in business innovation for more than a dozen years now and, I am pleased to say, I've even learned a thing or three along the way. One of those things is that when it comes to innovation, a lot of business leaders get awfully creative − with the truth. Here are business leaders' three favourite lies, the truth and what those business leaders should do − at least if they want their companies to innovate better.
1. Our company is innovative
Have you ever noticed that when a person repeatedly describes herself as having a strong, positive characteristic, she invariably fails to be that characteristic? The woman who says again and again that she has a great sense of humour would struggle to make a hyena laugh. The man who reminds you all that time he is not sexist always follows that statement with a remarkably sexist comment. The presidential candidate who repeatedly tells the world he is the most intelligent guy he knows, has yet to say anything to demonstrate that intellect, but frequently spouts shallow, simplistic statements that would embarrass a poorly educated six-year old.
People who really do have strong, positive characteristics do not need to remind you of these characteristics. They are obvious. A woman with a great sense of humour does not need to tell you she is funny again and again. After ten minutes of talking with her, you'll be laughing enough to know she's funny. America has had many intellectually brilliant presidents and presidential candidates. But they do not need to tell the populace this. Their grasp of complex political issues makes it perfectly clear.
Companies are the same way. When a business leader always describes her company as innovative; when a company's web site is bursting with the word "innovation"; when every middle manager's job title has the word innovation shoved into it (eg, Innovation Marketing Manager, Product Innovation Manager, Innovative Human Innovation Resources Manager of Innovation), you can be pretty sure the company is about as innovative as an unimaginative frog.
The leader of a truly innovative company does not need to remind the world on a regular basis that her company is innovative. The world can clearly see that it is because the company actually innovates.
Don't focus your efforts on claiming to be innovative. Focus on innovating.
2. Our Ideas Smörgåsbord was a huge success, it captured 30,000 ideas
"Our ideas Smörgåsbord was a huge success, it captured 30,000 ideas!" says the innovation leader.
Really? This is kind of like the marketing manager saying, "our marketing plan is a huge success, it includes 30,000 PowerPoint slides!"
So, you ask the marketing manaager, "And what about the results?"
The manager says, "Oh, there are no results yet. But we have 30,000 slides. 30,000 slides! That's more slides than our marketing plan has ever had before!"
You say, "But what about implementing the ideas in your slides?"
He says, "We cannot do that until the boss reviews the slides and she approves the plan, and each of the slides."
You ask, "And when will that happen?"
He exclaims, "Are you out of your mind? She has no time to look at 30,000 slides!"
You say, "So, the marketing plan was not a success, it has lead to no results."
He says, "Yes, it was a huge success. We generated 30,000 slides. What's wrong with you?"
Now, reread the conversation, replacing "markating plan" with "idea smörgåsbord", and "slides" with "ideas" and it should be clear that an event that generates 30,000 ideas was a tremendous waste of time, energy and resources which, and I have double-checked my business terminology dictionary to be sure here, is not the definition of "huge success".
Don't waste your time on efforts that capture gazillions of ideas. Focus on efforts that lead to big, bold creative ideas with realistic implementation paths.
3. We need to hire creative people to secure our future
Let us imagine a little conversation with a business leader.
"We need to hire creative people to secure our future," says the leader.
You reply, "great, so I assume that you are actively hiring artists, musicians, authors and other people with clear creative abilities; and that you are aiming for diversity of staff to include women, people from ethnic minorities, gays and foreigners," because companies with diverse management are more innovative − and profitable − than companies than are full of one particular group, such as heterosexual, white men*. It is also well known that diverse teams invariably have more creative ideas and are more likely to realise them, than teams in which all members have the same background.
"Well, yes, but people like that wouldn't fit in. We scan social media to identify creative people who fit in," says the leader.
"Yes, I did notice that your company appears to be full of straight, white men who have followed such focused career paths that they would not recognise a creative idea if it walked up to them and introduced itself," you say
The business leader smiles uncomfortably.
You continue, "I guess that is because your job adverts insist that applicants have followed strict career paths that leave no time for diverse experience. I have also heard that your recruitment people tend to reject applications from names that seem to be neither male nor white. So, how do you use social media to identify creative people?"
"We hire people whose backgrounds are similar to our existing employees' and who describe themselves as "creative" on LinkedIn."
"Just about everyone on LinkedIn claims to be creative," you observe.
"Yes, that makes it easy to find creative people," the leader says with a confident smile.
You need a drink.
The truth is, companies like his don't really want creative bright sparks. Creative bright sparks can be rebellious, have outlandish ideas and provoke colleagues. Diverse workforces are indeed more creative, but they are also more challenging to manage. Workforces where everyone is similar to everyone else are not very creative, but everyone tends to be comfortable working with everyone else, people do not ask uncomfortable questions and new colleagues quickly fit the corporate mold. This is why many businesses find it easier to hire people who claim to be creative than to identify truly creative thinkers and people with diverse backgrounds.
If you want creative people, hire for diversity of experience, background, sex, sexual preference and ethnicity; and look for people who are demonstrably creative. Hire artists, composers and writers.
This is written from the perspective of an American or European company. In Japan, replace "white" with "ethnic Japanese", in India, replace it with "Indian".
Fortunately, you and I are not like that
You have doubtless cringed in recognition with each of these business leader lies about innovation. Like me, you've also probably become so used to hearing such outrageous stories from business leaders that you barely notice them any more. Perhaps you even have your own favourite lies. If you do, please share them with me. I'd love to read them and share them (with your permission, of course).
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