Breaking Through the Three Fears of Innovation

“We simply can’t use the word ‘innovation’ here now. Last year, we had an innovation programme. It burnt hundreds of thousands of euros and produced nothing. Really, nothing! From now on we’ve got to use the word ‘agility’ instead.” This came up in a conversation with a VP a few months ago about her organisation’s efforts to be more competitive. Turns out the customary errors occurred – not enough leadership, poor process and when the inevitable mistakes were made, no desire to learn, revealing an incredible aptitude for corporate amnesia.

In collaboration with PurpleBeach, I was part of a project a few months ago to look at the fundamental barriers to innovation in organisations. When we pulled back the layer of symptoms that our research had gathered, three root cause issues stood out clearly: fear, language and motivation.

Here I want to look at the fear of innovation.

Why does innovation provoke so much fear in organisations?

For over 25 years I have experienced three underlying causes that appear largely the same regardless of culture or industry.

1. A threat to our value: the first is the same reason we fear change – because innovation is about creating value tomorrow and that inevitably stands in opposition to the status quo. Whilst a few people love change (mostly those driving it), the majority feel a physical threat to their current value when some ‘genius’ in another team has a bright idea that is likely to make them feel less essential or even redundant.

2. Creativity isn’t valued, despite what leaders might profess:  this is borne out of the way we’ve used and optimised our brains in corporate life and the cultures created as a result. The 20th century corporate mind-set has been brilliant at harnessing human rational and analytical capabilities to produce almost machine-like organisations. In the process, creativity and emotions have been side-lined and put into boxes to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Problem is, those qualities have become practically essential for everything that creates differentiated value today – innovation, customer service, product design, and employee engagement. Even though the benefits of the brain’s creative and emotional abilities have been long evidenced, it is still the poor cognitive cousin in the business world. For example, research conducted by the Centre for Creative Leadership concluded that when ‘star performers’ were compared with average ones, nearly 90% of the difference was attributed to Emotional Intelligence factors rather than rational abilities.

If the unspoken message from leaders is that creativity and intuition are ‘soft’ and ‘fluffy’, and what we really value is unadulterated pragmatism, this pushes the organisation toward a path of mechanical obsession and the focus becomes exclusively on the measureable, immediate and tangible.

3. ‘I can’t be creative or innovative’ – this fear stems from the fact that most people don’t see creative problem solving as part of their jobs (which is so far from the truth today) and as a result they’ve rarely invested any time in building a muscle of thinking beyond the concrete.

Overcoming the Fear of Innovation

In my last blog I talked about the three fears that stand in the way of innovation: a threat to our value; the fact that creativity isn’t given the significance it deserves; and that people fear their ability to be creative or innovative. Here I discuss how organisations overcome these fears:

1.  Acknowledge Fears:

The first step is to acknowledge fears; understand and accept their origins. This is particularly important for leaders who are most likely to disassociate themselves from their own fears and project them onto their teams.

2. Reduce Anxiety:

The next step is to reduce anxiety around the future by spending more time in it: understanding how to create a positive story about ‘what next?’ Innovation guru, Rita McGrath, says innovation stands a much better chance of gaining traction when senior managers create a sense of ‘constructive dissatisfaction’ alongside a potent sense of new possibilities and the means to achieve them.

3. Create More Capacity:

The third response should be to create more capacity for people to think and act in more innovative ways. When we consider the most fundamental definition of innovation, it’s clear that everyone has a useful contribution to make. Stripping the term innovation back to its most essential meaning, we describe it as the ‘equal marriage of creativity and pragmatism’ in the pursuit of solving problems. We need a fusion of both logic and creativity to fuel innovation.

Why Brainstorming Fails

Watch any group of executives at a flip chart brainstorming new solutions and they will compulsively move from problem to ‘solution’, simultaneously judging and editing. The results are commonly underwhelming because they aren’t new insights, but the ‘usual suspects’ – old ideas recycled by the rational dimensions of the brain. Unsurprisingly, many brainstorms result in ill temperedness as it becomes a negative emotional battle between ‘my old idea’ versus ‘your old idea!’ As Frank Partnoy, one of the world’s leading authorities on financial market regulation, comments; “Innovation is not deductive.”

Quantum Thinking – Making Leaps of Insight

The frustration of facilitating and participating in countless unsatisfactory brainstorming sessions has led our team to develop an approach called Quantum Thinking – the ability to make leaps of insight and understanding.

Key to this process’s success is its ability to defer rational problem solving and activate the remarkable power of the brain when it works to solve problems in unconscious mode. We create a movement between the pragmatic and creative modes of thought to unlock new levels of possibility.

There are three stages to Quantum Thinking:

1. Define Better Questions to propel the innovation process.

Crucial to the success of Quantum Thinking is the recognition that innovation isn’t driven initially by new ideas, but by what we call Brilliant Questions: questions with the power to inspire and motivate endeavour.

Brilliant Questions are the first flowering of the innovation process, forming in our unconscious brain while we sleep, exercise or daydream – anytime when we’re actively not trying to think. Because these insights come initially as feelings, metaphor and images they are normally inherently difficult to articulate in words. We’ve created techniques to help nurture these glimpses of insight (which are so often dismissed because initially they feel insubstantial when voiced) into the most practical of tools – a question with the power to subvert context and challenge the status quo.

What’s intriguing in teaching people the art of crafting Brilliant Questions is just how hard they find it at first. This highlights a wider point – so much activity is driven from broad goals and objectives, rather than laser sharp problems that need to be solved. Unsurprisingly, with the combined effects of leaping from a poorly defined problem straight to rationally driven problem solving, most teams struggle to find genuine breakthroughs when they brainstorm. If you think about scientists striving to make progress on the biggest challenges, they always break their research down into the smallest components of that problem they can find. By focusing the creative mind on a granular, highly specific problem, it has the most chance to find new answers.

2.  A/B Switching (referring to the Alpha/Beta waves associated with creative and rational thought).

The second part of Quantum Thinking, A/B Switching, purposefully moves the focus of the brain between rational and creative states to generate a large volume of potential ideas, nurturing and testing them in equal measure. The term is loosely borrowed from the phenomenon of sensory gating that describes the neurological processes of filtering out redundant or unnecessary stimuli in the brain. It helps to exploit the neural networks associated with creativity in a systematic and reproducible method.

This is perhaps the most revealing part of the process. The techniques necessary to co-opt the creative parts of the brain into the action, such as meditation, play and improvisation feel deeply unlike work to most people, but are also unquestionably rewarding and fun. After 30 or 60 minutes of A/B Switching, individuals are often grinning and clearly in a different mental state than the one that they usually employ to solve problems.

3. Performance Experiments to help teams overcome the fear of innovation through a systematic form of experimentation that reduces risk and accelerates ideas into revenue.

Once a new idea has been nurtured and refined, the last stage is the creation of a Performance Experiment. The concept and practice of conducting Performance Experiments, enables managers to break through the fears of the unknown, of failure and, counter-intuitively of success.

In 2011, Eric Ries, a serial entrepreneur, published the bestselling The Lean Start-Up. Although primarily aimed at online start-ups, we instantly recognised that the core idea was wholly applicable to new value creation within all organisations.

Ries observed that start-ups generally bet all their resources and investment on their big idea. Most get it wrong and fail, having no contingency to survive. Looking at the habits of those start-ups that get it right and go on to huge success, he observed that they created a test and learn cycle that was radically different from the herd. At its heart is the idea of Minimal Viable Product or Proposition (MVP); the smallest possible experiment you can conduct to validate the potential value that customers attribute to your idea.

When Ries formulated Lean Start-Up, it was in itself an MVP. There were few examples and even fewer clues about how to measure the data from a MVP experiment outside the obvious application to websites where data is a relatively straightforward outcome of any market interaction. But what about validated learning in areas such as an MVP for a new type of sales conversation or an in-store customer experience?

Since then we’ve been part of a growing global community playing with Ries’ first insight and coming up with a proliferating set of applications.

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