Why do companies undermine the behaviour they seek?

Written by
James Martin

11 Aug 2016

11 Aug 2016 • by James Martin

True innovation is rare

Most companies want to be more innovative. Many executives and leaders talk about the need to foster more innovation and exhort their employees to do it. And yet most companies are not particularly innovative. Why is this?

I believe this is partly because most organisations send their employees mixed signals. The relentless tyranny of short-term budgets and KPIs means that most P&L leaders have to focus their teams on achieving financial targets, which drives fear of failure and risk averse behaviour. The antithesis of what is required to be innovative.

Second, how to manage an organisation to encourage it to be innovative is not generally well understood. I have recently been reading the work of Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, who has made this topic a primary focus of her professional study. She has studied innovative organisations over a period of many years and her findings are illuminating.

Changing the face of normal

Helpfully, leaders of innovative organisations do not have to be, themselves, particularly innovative. Instead, they create the conditions where their colleagues are willing and able to innovate. This is not about having a flash of genius. It’s about creating an openness to ideas and a working style that encourages collaborative problem-solving. What does that mean in practice? 

Champion your people

There are three areas to champion:

  • Creative abrasion. This involves creating a marketplace of ideas and diverse alternative paths forward.
  • Creative agility. This is about the ability to test ideas through fast trial, reflection and adjustment.
  • Creative resolution. Innovative organizations maintain trial of competing ideas as long as possible, which keeps options open and can often lead to integrating unusual combinations of approaches.

Achieving this is clearly easier said than done. However, it is clear that the whole notion of failure needs to be revisited and redefined. If you work in an organisation where there are no failures, then I would also hypothesise that your company is not particularly innovative. James Dyson famously described working on over 5,000 failures of his first vacuum cleaner before he arrived at a model that was successful. For him, failures seems to indicate a positive signal that you are continually finding problems, which gives you an opportunity to solve them. Another example from the world of sport. As Michael Jordan said: “I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”