Innovation is essential to keeping an organization alive--everyone knows that. Then why do so few companies innovate?
Part of the answer is that it's very hard for people who are invested in the current business to truly embrace disruptive new ideas. Tom Peters talks about this when he says that innovation never happens vertically in a company. One of the fastest ways to kill a good idea is to take an exciting innovation discovered at the front line and move it up the chain by asking your boss, having them ask their boss, and so on. When you run an idea up the chain of command, you almost never get the permission or the resources to innovate well.
People at the top of the organizational pyramid are usually running the business using lagging indicators. In general, their focus is on defending present revenue streams. More often than not they are nervous about anything that might cannibalize, compete with, or distract from the company's core business.
It's understandable. In many ways, this is exactly what top executives should be concerned about. But that's also why true innovation usually happens in the corners of the business and works its way up. Building horizontally gives the idea a chance to develop and gain momentum. It also gives the innovation a chance to generate tangible results that can be used later in making the business case to senior leaders.
In our experience, you are usually better off moving forward after receiving just enough permission to experiment with and develop the innovation. Trying to sell an idea to top leadership before it has generated tangible results can be a very difficult hill to climb. Very few innovative ideas can stand up to the scrutiny of a core business model. Things that are new and disruptive are rarely as good as the present product or service, even though they have the potential to be game changers.
Don't overlook assumptions and mindsets
People have different levels of readiness and capacity to understand change. Robert Marshak, senior scholar in residence at American University and author of Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change, wrote a wonderful article that we've referred to several times when we've come up against change in our company. It's called “Managing the Metaphors of Change.”
In the article, Marshak points out that when most people think about change, they assume that others will respond to it the same way they do. Marshak describes four different mindsets, represented by different metaphors, which affect how people view innovation.
1. Fix and maintain. The theme here is, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” It's a minimalist approach to innovation that only kicks in when something is broken. One of our consultants ran into this attitude with a prospective banking client. In speaking to a group of senior leaders, our consultant was having trouble getting the group to grasp the concept of a future vision. Slightly exasperated, our consultant asked, “What do you want this bank to look like in five years?” The general consensus was that since the bank had recently been redecorated and since they expected to get seven or eight years out of a typical facelift, they expected the bank to look pretty much the same as it did today. Needless to say, radical innovation was going to be a challenge for this group.
2. Build and develop. People with this attitude are more open to innovation than Fix and Maintainers. These people are about incrementally improving and building something better than they have today. This can be seen in the way they focus on improving processes—for example, taking a paper process and turning it into a more paperless process.
3. Transitional. Those with a Transitional mindset are willing to examine current market forces and are looking to stay current. In our company, for example, a Transitional mindset allowed us to continually evolve as training moved from classroom-based delivery to a virtual approach.
4. Transformative. Those with a Transformative mindset are open to ideas that look completely different from what currently exists. Today's smart phones are a good example of the product of a Transformative mindset. A complete departure from original cell phones, smart phones allow us to make and receive calls from anywhere, surf the web, read e-mail, access a wide variety of apps and product reviews, map locations, watch videos, and stay in constant touch with friends and family. Central to everything we do, the smartphone has transformed our lives.
Understand yourself and others
The different mindsets aren't necessarily good or bad. What's important is to understand both your own mindset and the mindset of your audience.
What is your relationship to innovation? What are the key assumptions and beliefs currently limiting your possibilities for change? What about your peers and colleagues? How can you address different mindsets to encourage them to see new possibilities? Finally, as an organization, how do you develop leaders with the ability to challenge their own assumptions and beliefs?
Your organization is only as innovative as the people who work within it. As a leader, it's important that you look in the corners of your organization and your industry for the next innovative idea. Especially seek out and encourage the people developing ideas on the fringes. Consider what you can do to make it easier for yourself and others to see, understand, and leverage new ideas. These are the beginning steps to building a company whose innovations will keep it relevant and competitive now and in the future.
Scott Blanchard is the co-founder of Blanchard Certified , a new cloud-based leadership development resource and experience. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard  or@LeaderChat  and also via the HowWeLead  and LeaderChat  blogs.
[Image: Flickr user Benson Kua ]