Innovation (Podcast Episode 8)

Recently, we’ve been approached by quite a few organisations wanting help with promoting innovation within their teams; innovation training, developing innovation programs and L&D teams looking to innovate in terms of how they work and how they provide learning. So, we thought it would be interesting to have a chat with fellow LearnJam co-founder, Nick Robinson. As well as his LearnJam work, Nick does a lot of executive coaching and training with a focus on innovation and creativity. You can listen here or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or on our podcast page.

Here’s an abridged version of the conversation:

Nick: When preparing for a training session on creativity recently I read a statistic that said around 90% of organisations have innovation as part of their company-wide goals. So it’s not a surprise that we get so many requests coming through from people asking how we can help their teams to be more innovative. I suppose it unearths an interesting question – can you train innovation, either into people or into organisations, as a ‘thing’? Why is innovation not just flourishing in organisations? 

Most organisations clearly believe that they can, because they spend a lot of money doing it. But can they really? And if so, how? 

It’s something that currently filters down through organisations and is expected to be part of people’s roles. People are expected to think innovatively and to try and solve problems in new ways. It’s worth unpicking the terms creativity and innovation. They get put together and are often misunderstood. The idea of innovation as being creativity manifested is quite an interesting way of looking at it. 

What organisations are not looking for is blind creativity; people being creative in very unstructured, undirected ways. What they’re looking for is manifestations of creativity that are valuable. That value can be measured in lots of different ways. How it’s traditionally been thought of is in terms of the ‘cool side’ of innovation; massive breakthroughs in terms of product types or new ways of doing things, for example. The literature around innovation defines this idea as ‘primary innovation’; big leaps forward until new product categories emerge. The iPhone is a classic example. The first iPhone is considered a primary innovation to some extent; it ‘does’ the smartphone in a very innovative way!

How much of innovation is innate? Is it something that people can change their mindset about?  

I would actually argue that none of it is innate. What happens is you have two things going on at the same time. One is that there needs to be some kind of structure within organisations that facilitates innovation. What a lot of organisations do wrong at that point is they think that means an innovation team, or some kind of siphoned-off unit in which innovation. The one phrase that a lot of people might have heard is ‘skunkworks’ which refers to this idea of putting a bunch of people in a different building from everyone else and then saying “Come up with all the crazy innovative ideas.” This has been traditionally a very typical way of running innovation within organisations; the idea that you need to give people the room and headspace away from the day-to-day rigours of the business to allow them to think in new innovative ways. 

But, that doesn’t really help. What it ends up doing is creating this ‘us and them’ mindset within the organisation; “Oh, some people are allowed to work on the cool, innovative stuff and the rest of us have to do the grind”. Then, when the innovation team brings all their ideas back to the main business, they’re rejected because the feeling is  “Well, we don’t like those guys, because they get to work in the cool office.”

It’s interesting that you say that; we have to hold our hands up and say that five or six years ago we were going into major educational institutions and publishers and saying, “This is what you need to do, guys!” 

Exactly! This is part of innovation, you learn from mistakes. You try things, and if they don’t work, you figure out what you learnt. Then you go on and try something new, but you take the learning from it. 

To come back to the original question about the innateness of innovation, it does need some kind of structure, but it doesn’t need to be a separate stream. It can just be a culture, or a climate where experimentation is encouraged. What that often looks like is not so much “We encourage experimentation”, but more “We don’t punish mistakes”. 

Let’s say I figure out a better way of doing something and I try it, and maybe it doesn’t work and it causes a problem. What does my boss do? Does my boss say, “Listen, Nick, what you did was completely unsanctioned and unacceptable, and I’m going to report you to HR and dock your pay”, or does my boss turn around and say, “Well, okay, that was a really massive mistake, but I see why you were doing it and what you were trying to get to, so what have you learned from that? What should we do next?” That starts to create an innovative climate. 

The other side of that question is “Are people naturally innovative?” Creativity is absolutely not an innate skill whatsoever. That is absolutely a learned mindset. Often what it comes from is  curiosity; being interested in new ways of doing things and challenging the status quo, and also being very open minded about ideas and approaches that may not immediately seem sensible. 

I might look at something and think, “That doesn’t work very well, what if we tried this?” and then maybe think “That’s a ridiculous idea … but should we just see where it goes?” When a colleague says “Why don’t we try this instead?”, your first instinct isn’t “No” or “Yes but …”; it might be “Yeah, let’s see what happens …” It’s an openness. So, I don’t think it’s innate at all, which is why I think it can be trained. You need to approach it not just as a set of tools that people need, but as a way of thinking about innovation within an organisation, and how leaders and managers think about it as well. 

So rather than addressing innovation through otherness and separation, address the daily grind?

The daily grind is what contrasts with ‘primary innovation’, this idea we have that innovation is about massive leaps forward in terms of product category and product type. It’s sometimes called ‘silver bullet innovation’, but it’s really rare, and it’s really hard. It requires a magic touch to some extent, or an incredible alignment of people, luck, time, and space all coming together. What’s much more common, and actually much more valuable over time, is what they call ‘secondary innovation’ which is fixing all the tiny elements of the grind that are getting us down. 

If you look at the way your business operates and think no one’s being creative, the way to fix that is not to hive off a bunch of people to be creative; it’s to look at that system and ask “Why is no one being creative in this system? There’s something systematically wrong here.” What that comes down to is examining the way we work and the way we do things and thinking, “Can we just start to improve a bunch of stuff in really small ways?”

It’s known as the aggregation of marginal gains; this idea that it’s really hard to improve one thing by 1,000%, but you can improve a thousand things by 1%, and completely transform the way your business works. This idea is not unknown, or uncommon, but it’s not exciting in the same way that primary or silver bullet innovation is. It doesn’t end up with an iPhone! But if you save three minutes on every single process for every single employee in the organisation, and you do that 100 times, suddenly people have room to do other things. It’s about unlocking space and time for things like creative endeavors that we actually don’t get the chance to do because of the daily grind. Fixing the daily grind is a really interesting innovation challenge, and one that should be relished and not viewed as boring.

How would a business owner go about addressing systemic changes in their organisation? How could they get people on board to do that with them?  

Essentially this comes down to the question of where people’s cognitive capacity is going in the organisation. Where are people spending their brain power? The brain is not an unlimited resource. Within the typical workday your brain has x number of kilowatts of power to put towards focus and attention, and managing that is quite important. If it’s been taken up by loads of stuff, like processes, that are cognitively challenging, then people aren’t thinking creatively. 

When people talk about innovation, what they’re usually looking for is a silver bullet to a different problem that’s nothing to do with innovation. It’s to do with market share, or it’s to do with staff retention, or whatever it might be. What can look like innovation to a lot of people is actually just understanding the problem you’re trying to solve better and coming up with ideas to solve it. That in itself could feel like an amazing, innovative breakthrough, because all you’ve done is pause for a second to understand what you’re trying to do. For me, it’s all connected.  It’s all about understanding the problems you’re trying to solve and how to solve them. When that becomes a new product or a new system or a new process, it’s called innovation. But it’s not necessarily labeled as such.

What if the organisation is unwilling to change? What if there are well established processes and systems in place that have been running for decades that everyone is quite happy with?

What’s at play here is a cognitive bias known as the familiarity bias where we are deeply comfortable with what we know.  We like to be comforted by the status quo, essentially. It works. That’s the way we do it. That in itself becomes the reason to keep doing it. But there is still value in saying “What if it worked 50% better? What then? What if we’re missing something? What if actually ‘fine’ is 80% of what it could be if we just spent half an hour thinking about how to do it differently?” This is another example of this secondary innovation, where we go through and break all our system processes and see if we can put them back together in a better way. 

The familiarity bias is a really powerful bias because it’s rooted in comfort. Comfort is the enemy of innovation; comfort and fear of change. We feel like if things get too shaken up, things look too different. Is my job safe? Is my department safe? Am I going to get automated out of existence? They’re understandable fears that people have about the advancement of technology, of things moving in a new and exciting direction. How do you combat that? 

Good innovation should always feel slightly seat of your pants. “This feels like unknown territory. This feels a bit dangerous!” That is what it should feel like. Embrace the uncertainty, the natural discomfort that comes from looking at something and saying, “We’re going to break this and put it back together.” 

It brings us back to this idea of climate and culture where you have to feel safe. “If I’m going to break this entire system and try and put it back together, I’m not going to get fired; I’m going to get in some way rewarded for trying to make things better”.

How can innovation be translated into a marketable product?

The mistake people are making is they’re associating product launch with launching to the mass market. The mass market should be your ultimate goal for a product, not your starting point. The idea that you have to go from a standing start to mass market is the enemy of innovation.  It gets people thinking that you have to appeal to everybody straightaway. 

The reality is good products get to the mass market through a small, devoted group of fans who love what you’re doing, your vision, your values and what you’re trying to do. 

Solve a real problem for them and they will really want you to succeed. They might even give you some money or invest. It keeps going, keeps building until more people start to see what you’re doing. It builds this wave of support that turns into a mass market product. This is where everything’s got messed up in terms of startup stuff; that process can take so long that you just have to raise so much money to get through that bit. Most founders spend all their time raising money and not focused on trying to build that amazing product and satisfying all those users.

How can creativity be encouraged in an organisation across all roles?  

It’s a really good question, and it’s one that gets to the bottom of some of the misconceptions around creativity; that creativity is innate in some way, that it is the realm of people with creative jobs like designers. The reality is a lot of creativity is best delivered through quite formal processes and quite formal structures. 

Let’s take convergent and divergent thinking, for example. This is a technique we use quite a lot in LearnJam as part of our workshop process with clients. The idea is that when you’re brainstorming something, a really simple but very logical process you can apply to that brainstorming is to start divergent.  Start with the biggest, widest range of possible solutions that you could possibly come up with, and then try and converge into narrow categories. Then, go into something much more specific. The idea of going from the broad to the specific is a really simple creativity tool that’s built around logic; there’s nothing in there that requires you to be innately creative. 

This idea that logic is at odds with creativity is really wrong; I think it needs it. This is how we come back to the original question; How do you train this into people? Well, I think you give them structured ways of thinking about being creative (and therefore innovative) in terms of turning that into something tangible. Give people tools, processes, systems, things that we know work from different industries. There are tools that have been proven to help people come up with great ideas. Give them an opportunity to practice using them, and then they take off and try them themselves. That to me is at the core of innovation training.