In both physical fitness and innovation, bad habits undo the best intentions. A good workout comes to nothing if it’s followed by a super-sized meal on the way home. Likewise, the best innovation initiatives come to nothing if your organization gets a few basic things wrong. Bad innovation habits can undo the best innovation intentions.
Hopefully the three steps to stifling innovation below are unfamiliar. Unfortunately, they represent the status quo of most organizations, especially military organizations. They are natural habits of organizational life. But natural does not have to mean inevitable — the role of an organizational leader is to undo these habits, or prevent them from forming in the first place.
Giving kudos only for what the organization already does.
It’s a law of social science and a fact of real life that we act to maintain our self-esteem. In other words, we are naturally drawn to do what earns the admiration of colleagues we respect. If the only way to earn respect is through competence in what the organization already does, you’ll draw people’s attention away from what could be changed or improved. This step kills innovation because it brings a fear of failure to the forefront of our thinking. Failure is an inevitable part of the innovation process; innovation results from experimentation to see which ideas work and which do not. Prevent failure and you’ll prevent innovation from starting in the first place.
To avoid this, define competence in terms of a process; the competent in an are those engaged in a process of constant experimentation. More experimentation, coupled with the natural human capacity for ingenuity, will inevitably lead to more innovation.
Allowing layers to accumulate on the organizational chart.
The harder it is to pass information from one level of an organization to the next, the harder innovation becomes. Innovation is an emergent phenomenon, a product of the organizational environment. If you create an environment in which ideas are easily shared, innovative ideas will become more common. This is true in the scale of an economic ecosystem like Silicon Valley. It’s no accident that the most innovative companies in the country are clustered around each other.
It’s also true at the level of the organization. The more numerous and rigid the layers between people, the more excuses there are for not sharing information. An innovative idea is a fragile thing. If you extend the time between conception of the idea and its implementation, you increase the likelihood the idea won’t go anywhere. You can make innovative ideas more likely to survive by dropping the idea of organizational levels altogether. In this type of organization — a “flat” organization — sharing ideas becomes so easy that innovation can become natural.
Defining innovation as a resource problem.
Even if organizations are open to experimentation and flat hierarchy framing innovation as a problem of resources can lead to big problems. There will never be enough resources on hand to innovate, at least to innovate with no risk. It’s easy for leaders to fall back on the “no money, no time” option, but some of the most innovative companies became innovative exactly because of a lack of resources, not an abundance. “Just Start,” a book from Harvard Business Review Press, distills the mentality of a successful new business as one that chooses to solve problems with the resources at hand, no matter how meager those resources may be. Working with the resources at hand is especially important for an innovator in the military, who depends on the slow (at best) congressional budgeting process for resources.
If at all possible, try to reinforce a “just start” mentality, or the belief that innovations begin with cheap demonstration projects to jumpstart the experimentation process. It’s especially important that front-line operators catch the “just start” mindset — if they start experimenting, they’re liable to prove that their idea is feasible. An innovative idea alone is easy to dismiss. An innovative idea with a successful demonstration behind it, even a small-scale demonstration, is a lot harder to dismiss.
The stakes are too high to settle for bad innovation habits.
These three habits may be natural for an organization — it’s easy to praise what the organization already does, to add layers to the organization, and to focus on resource limitations. But these habits are the difference between innovation and stasis. In a world that’s always changing, the people, companies, and militaries that don’t change will fall behind.