Monday, 12 October 2009

It's People Who Innovate

We either innovate or we die. We broadly accept this dictum. But what do we choose to do about it? And on reflection, do our choices make real sense?

First Story

A few years ago, I was working with the consulting arm of a national healthcare system on the issue of the low rate of adoption of innovations developed at centres for excellence into local practice. I have always been intrigued by the joined issues of the psychology of incompetence and the form that resistance to change can take, often known as Not-Invented-Here (NIH) culture.

I ran an exercise involving both local practitioners and government consultants, and we came up with some powerful and interesting lessons for accelerating adoption of innovations. Being a big fan of the rule of 3 (the idea that if you can identify the top 3 issues and resolve these, then the remainder will probably take care of themselves), I facilitated the exercise to identify the 3 most powerful influencers of local adoption of innovations:

1. Use the language of the people who are going to implement the innovation, don’t use MBA language. Consultant language has a tendency to alienate user audiences and trigger powerful NIH behaviours. If you can, employ a typical “user” of the solution who has strong links with the audience that you want to influence, and who expresses themselves authentically.

2. Demonstrate the real results gained to show it’s worth doing: ideally, try to show benefits not only to the customer, but also to the user who makes the innovation happen.

3. Recruit people who think innovating is part of everyday work. Try to employ people who want to innovate, or at the very least make it clear that work is going to involve a continual interest in improving and changing performance.

On reflection, the lessons can be reduced to 3 words: language, benefits and perhaps they are all about the psychology of innovation.

Second Story

At the beginning of 2008, I was working with the Heads of Innovation of 2 businesses which had recently been acquired. I was facilitating a series of discussions about the future shape and direction of innovation strategy in the newly-merged organisation. On the surface, these Heads of Innovation were complying, but in reality they were stressed, and naturally jockeying for dominance and succession or for golden exits. The official outcome was going to be their agreed strategy for doubling turnover through innovation within 3 years. After 2 sessions together, I found that they were playing the old scientist game of questioning me in detail about the legitimacy of the facilitation techniques I was employing, instead of focusing on the issue. Once I had resolved this, I found that we moved onto a technical discussion of stage gate innovation processes (where you segment your invention to innovation process into defined stages, and apply rules that determine progression beyond each stage). The game they wanted to play here, was to pretend that having an integrated, and shared approach to stage-gate definition and decision-making would solve the problem of innovation to drive an aggressive growth target. When I began to pressure them on the issue of innovation talent, and demolished the assumption that scientific ambition was the same thing, it became clear that creative individuals were largely marginalised and isolated within a scientific bureaucracy that was under-performing.

They wanted to avoid the fact that when it came down to people, they didn’t have the right people to deliver the kind of innovation to drive growth that the new organisation required. And that they didn’t think that it was important. Life would go on (they hoped) much as before.


Both these consulting exercises (first and second stories) had a profound effect on my thinking. I have always been a “process” man. I have developed and facilitated the co-creation of innovation processes, applied lean thinking both within and outside the automotive industry, implemented business process redesign, and even taught process leadership as a technique for making processes work within organisations. But I couldn’t avoid the obvious conclusion over time, that

1. Whilst processes are useful as a means of focusing attention and reducing the need to relearn the obvious, they cannot be a substitute for understanding the psychology of innovation.

2. Whilst history has shown us examples where innovative people with deficient processes have found a way to succeed, there are few examples of mediocre people succeeding because they had great processes.