Although most companies put innovation at the heart of their agenda, few understand what it is. To make matters worse, strategic decisions about innovation are often inspired by lay misconceptions.
Here are three toxic myths that inhibit a business’s ability to be more innovative.
Some individuals are clearly more innovative than others. Not only can they generate creative ideas more easily, they are also better at turning them into actual innovations. And these qualities are no doubt related to personality traits such as a hungry mind, openness to new experiences, and problems with authority.
That said, innovation is always the product of teams, rather than the heroic effort of isolated individuals. Steve Jobs had a great vision, but his real talent was to know how to assemble a creative team. Likewise, Lionel Messi can unleash his creative genius only in the company of his FC Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta. Even fictional characters like Don Draper would be unable to deliver the goods without his trusted right-hand Peggy Olson.
And yet, the popular view of innovation tends to worship individual contributors as if they worked singlehandedly. In line, there is a growing trend to describe innovation roles with over-the-top glamorous job titles, such as Growth Hacker or Chief Disruption Officer.
It is popular opinion that risk and innovation go hand in hand. Indeed, entrepreneurs are often described as reckless risk takers, as if fearless gambling were the recipe for innovation.
The fact is that innovation requires a very small dose of risk. Indeed, successful innovations are the product of rational and calculated processes and subject matter expertise. Unsurprisingly, the failure rate for entrepreneurs is around 80%, and the few entrepreneurs who succeed tend to be significantly more risk-averse.
Of course, there are risks associated with any innovation—as Jeff Bezos noted, if you know it’s going to work, then it’s not an experiment. But that’s precisely why a cautionary approach to innovation is more likely to pay off. Most great innovations are not that risky; most risky decisions are not innovative.
There is a considerable disconnect between individuals’ self-perceptions of creativity and their actual creative talents. The main reason is that most people overestimate how creative they really are. Unsurprisingly, "innovative" is one of the top 10 overused keywords in people’s Linkedin profiles. This positive self-delusion creates three major problems.
First, when people are unaware of their limitations it is much harder for them to improve—it is already difficult to boost your creative talents, but if you see yourself as highly creative, then you won't even try.
Second, although confident people are not more innovative, they are often good at fooling others into believing that they are, turning their self-deception into other-deceptions. In the long run, however, ideas rarely survive on the basis of their impostors’ charm, and others will realize that they mistook confidence for competence.
Third, when overconfident people fail to persuade others of their creative talents, they will come across as entitled and narcissistic and react in defensive and aggressive ways. The alternative, a reality check, is equally traumatic but healthier in the long run.
In short, organizations should stop assuming that the solution to their innovation problems will stem from the heroic efforts of individual contributors. They must also distinguish between people’s self-rated and actual creative talent and understand that risk is more likely to hinder than to boost innovation.
Crucially, innovation requires a series of coordinated management efforts and effective leadership. People will always differ in their creative potential, but with the right culture in place every employee will feel compelled to unleash their creative potential.
If companies are serious about innovation they must not only hire entrepreneurial people, but also build effective teams and networks around them; give them not only freedom, but also resources; and think less of disruptive innovation and more of Kaizen innovation, which is a much more realistic approach to resisting the bureaucratic decline that kills innovation.
—Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, consumer analytics, and talent management. He is a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), Vice President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessments, and has previously taught at New York University and the London School of Economics.
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