The Innovation Edict

innovation-2_medThere is a groundswell of interest in innovation across the planet. As historians know, the interest in innovation is cyclic, and this year it’s surely in vogue. Everyone wants more of it, even if we don’t know what it is – we want it. And we want it because we want it; it’s an emotional want. Never mind that we don’t know how to do it, damn it, we’re going to do more innovation come hell or high water. Not knowing how to do innovation is an obstacle, but it can be overcome with the right tools, processes and a good training plan. Our people are capable and willing, so there’s no problem there. But there is a show-stopper out there: the innovation edict is incremental work – it’s another thick layer of work slopped onto our already full plates. Even before the innovation edict, we’re doing two or three jobs, we’ve extended the do-more-with-less mantra beyond the ridiculous, and we’re stretched to the breaking point with workloads that defy all tests of reason. How can we be expected to do more?

The truth of the matter is we cannot do more; we’re already diluted beyond all effectiveness. Any more dilution would be like watering down water with more water. It has no meaning. And what makes the innovation edict especially ludicrous is that innovation requires a lot of thinking time, quality thinking time, uninterrupted thinking time. It’s a thinking person’s sport. And not just mortal thinking, it requires novel thinking, thinking we’ve never done before. Do you have time to think with your current workload? I don’t think so.

Thinking? You’re crazy. We don’t have time to think, we need to do innovation!

As we know, managers have extreme difficulty discerning activity from progress, and not many think that thinking is progress. It sure doesn’t look like activity. If you want to aggravate a manager, sit at your desk and think. When they ask you what you’re doing, tell them you’re thinking. Then watch their face turn colors like a New England foliage.

What do we do about it? The answer comes from Jim Collins – create a stop doing list. We must create innovation bandwidth by stopping work on lower priority activities. Stop. Stop. Stop. And don’t just talk about stopping, actually stop doing things. It’s the only way. Of course this is difficult because it requires prioritization. It requires judgment and guts. And feelings will get hurt because some projects will stop. So be it. Actually, I think major disagreement, anger, and long, difficult meetings are objective evidence that activities are actually stopping. No anger, no difficult meetings, no freed up innovation bandwidth. Do you want to do innovation or just talk about doing innovation?

There’s no free lunch with innovation. Innovation requires our most precious resource – our time.

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4 Responses to “The Innovation Edict”

  • Mike:

    I have read some of your posts and enjoyed them. This one, not so much. You bring in a number of questionable assumptions. I will focus on my biggest concern with what you are saying:

    It is true that Innovation is a tired old noun/verb so lets not use it. Any other word would be fine. Lets start with ‘Discovery’. One more piece before we get started, a project. Some years ago I was working on the Mission to Mars program at NASA Ames Research. NASA needed to understand how Astronaut’s movements would be accurately executed.

    My team was tasked with creating a Mars gravity Simulator that would allow us to describe the accuracy of the movements. This required a problem statement, a knowledge of human movement and a device to simulate the Martian gravity. In 12 weeks 2 scientists and a handful of eager and intelligent college students created 3 designs and over the next 12 months implemented prototypes. These people were not overworked or on the wrong side of management. They were the right people for the task. In addition to their work they spent a week learning about an Innovation skill set.

    My point is that Innovation is not something that people do separately from the project it is not an extra that will enrage the management, It is an enhancement that typically can produce more than what was expected.

    In this case we created 3 designs and implemented 2. Two of the designs became products in the medical and industries. Four patents were eventually applied for. Generating IP was not an objective of the but it emerged as a result of the training of the staff.

    So, Innovation can be something that takes no additional time in a project and generates future applications and products. Innovation and Product Development can be seamlessly integrated.

  • Mike:

    Thanks for your comment, Gene. I enjoyed your example. Thankfully, you see things differently. Your perspective is appreciated. Mike

  • Doug Hoover:

    This is my first read of any of Mike’s posts and from my viewpoint as a design engineer I think Gene has missed Mike’s point. Probably because Gene’s single project seems to be the ultimate extension of Mike’s proposal. A single task (build a gravity simulator) with no other project to take time away from finding the best solution (creative innovation?).

    Now if these same people were responsible for completing 2 or even 3 other projects or tasks concurrently to the gravity simulator, wouldn’t one of the projects have to slip (priorities)? I’m not saying that there can’t be innovation in all projects, just that it cannot happen at the same time.

    I see Gene’s example as the perfect (near perfect?) environment for innovation (creative problem solving). A single problem statement and commitment of resources and people to attempt to solve only that problem without other ‘distractions’.

    I see Mike’s “Innovation” as someone (the Company / Management / Marketing / “the Boss” / us) wanting anything new and “innovative”, while in the same time completing multiple projects that have already been assigned.

  • Steven Estergreen:

    You hit the nail right on the head. I used to ride my bike to work daily, and had my best thoughts (and innovations) while riding. Riding a bike leaves time to think, and see the individual trees and streets and houses along the way. Now I live further from work, in a place that has more darkness and rain than where I lived previously, and rarely ride to work. Instead of filling my riding time with other activity that allows thinking (chopping firewood, walking, daydreaming, writing my thoughts down), I have filled it with busy-ness. My frequency of innovative thought has gone way down. Not just as it applies to work, but to other more important things like relationships and my purpose in life as well. Thanks for the reminder of what I could be doing!

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