5451831228Innovators – truly ground-breaking, revolutionary thinkers – are not like you and I.

I know I am generalizing terribly, but bear with me.

Those who discover something truly new, invent something that is a leap beyond the state-of-the-art, defy conventional thinking – these rare and inspirational figures do not normally just confine their creativity and unconventional approach to one narrow area of their lives.

Think about a great innovator you know.  Is  this person comfortable in a conventional corporate setting, dressed in conventional business casual clothes, following company rules and norms?  Or does this person – uniquely able to move beyond the constraints that bind most of our thinking – march to their own drummer across many areas of life?

And here is my point for today – how does your organization, and your leadership, treat those who consistently buck the norms, defy the conventions?  My guess is that something like “organ rejection” occurs over time, and they leave, are forced out, or get tired of the fight and conform.  It is just very hard for a culture to accept counter-culture elements.  The danger is not only does a strong set of cultural norms alienate the most innovative people, but it likely reduces the level of creativity and innovation in everyone to some extent.  

Here are 5 things you might be doing that kill innovation throughout your organization and culture:

1.  The leader as cultural guardian:  You might feel your role is partly to establish and preserve culture, and so you police the conversations and decisions for counter-culture elements.  Your team knows that in certain situations there is a certain way of thinking that is “right,” and they better give the “right answer” or expect consequences.   This approach has advantages, and may lead to a strong team dynamic, but it is toxic to innovation over time.

2. No constraints, no specifics, just think big:   In this style of leadership, management lets the innovators do what they do best and any specific constraint is seen as  “limiting innovation.” This is similar to “The Cowboy” from Scott Anthony’s HBR blog post on Innovation Assassins.  But this is not how productive creativity really works:  creative minds are inspired by a particular difficult/interesting problem or challenge – it is the constraints that make it interesting, that make it difficult, that direct the energy of the innovators.  It is much better to set a goal, to set constraints (such as time, or cost, or function) as needed such that the innovative solution is actually useful to the business.

3.  Turkey shoots abound.  If you find that brainstorming and problem-solving meetings feel like bird-hunting, with a bunch of hunters shooting at a poor bird at the white board, you are going to force all the innovation underground.  Or maybe folks will be innovating how to avoid your meeting!  Not only should all criticism be constructive, but a more innovation-friendly approach is to encourage commentators to speak up only with critical information, and to  first say what is strong/good about an idea.  Detailed evaluation of  ideas is often handled best after multiple ideas are placed on the table and mulled-over together.

4.  Innovation is the job of R&D (Engineering).  We need innovation in almost every area of the business, from Sales to Supply Chain to Finance to Food Service.  Encouragement of unique approaches to problems, to unconventional ways of thinking about things should be a common theme with every team.  This is not so easy for some departments who traditionally have not been encouraged to innovate.  Whatever area of the business you lead, formally or from within the team, can benefit from incentives and rewards for innovative thinking, creative ideas, unconventional approaches.

5.  Innovators are appointed.  Innovation and innovators emerge from a special combination of interesting problems, challenging constraints, and conditions that feed and favor risk-taking.  Absolutely recruit great talent with a history of innovation.  But put tons of energy into creating an environment that rewards thoughtful risk-taking, avoids “turkey shoots,” and recognizing creative ideas ( and uses them in the business).  You will be excited by the innovators who emerge and the impact they have.

There are many good posts and features on building innovation.  A particularly interesting one highlight thin importance of culture is Nick Jankel-Elliot’s Top Tips for Building an Innovation Culture.

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