At one of my customers - a designer of retail containers - the CEO thinks a lot about the role of design and innovation in her company. She certainly works in a very competitive, rapidly changing market: consumers increasingly buy online while at the same time voicing environmental concerns about packaging. Her aim is bold. “We want to put innovation at the center of our business.”
That sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? And the CEO has good intentions - to see more new and radical thinking in her company. But I had to take a deep breath and tell her, “I think you’re taking almost exactly the wrong approach. Innovation does not flourish when controlled and managed. New ideas emerge and sparkle at the edges of our organizations, not at the centre.”
Here’s what I explained …
In business, the need for the management team to agree on strategy and execution, tends to encourage a certain conformity. The need for experienced managers similarly tends to encourage stale thinking. After all, what is experience but the knowledge of old problems and existing solutions?
Experienced managers at the heart of an organization will most likely propose entirely logical, well tried, solutions. However, as Frans Johansson says in his excellent book The Click Moment - “If the pathway to success is logical, it means that everyone else can find it fast.”
Experienced managers may do everything right in the eyes of the CEO and investors - except they rarely innovate.
Meanwhile at the edges …
If you’re not a manager, if you have no influence over strategy and tactics, you may feel you just have to go along with all this.
However, I suggest that if we look at the edges of a business, or at the edges of any organization, and especially if we look at the edges of society, we can see something else. There, you will find individuals who don’t just “go along,” but who work around all the well-intentioned processes in order to really solve the problems they face. They innovate, precisely because they don’t know how things are “meant to be.” They don’t have the experience to know how things should be done, or the need to conform.
These innovators at the edge often make mistakes. Such errors, however, form an inevitable part of taking risks: risks that managers with centralized responsibility often avoid. To be sure, mistakes are less costly at the edge, where we can contain their impact.
Now, my CEO friend (we are still friends, which says a lot for her forbearance!) asked me, “So, if we don’t put innovation at the heart of what we do, how do we create the edges we need?”
That is a great question, and I know several approaches which work well. For example, we can create a team or teams which have the freedom to fail.
Often companies create an innovation lab to this end. Labs, among other roles, should ceaselessly experiment. As that most innovative composer John Cage said, “An experiment is an action, the outcome of which is unknown.” It is the unknown you are looking for.
In addition to having freedom to fail, labs teams need to be lean and agile. And I strongly suggest that you recruit team members from outside your business domain. Remember that knowledge and experience can be barriers to seeing things in a new light. Those who don’t know your domain will bring new, unhampered, thinking almost by nature.
Oh the irony!
Yes, there is an irony here. I am suggesting a well-tried method to help your company break away from well-tried methods. That’s the fun thing about innovation. It’s an art more than a science!