Innovation — From Buzz Word to Slow Seller?

Innovation - From Buzz Word to Slow Seller?In my presentations I often ask the audience whether they need innovation in their jobs. The overwhelming majority says they do. This is not surprising, right? Innovation is a buzz word.

This monthly Nadya Zhexembayeva published an article, “Stop Calling It ‘Innovation in the Harvard Business Review providing the following evidence that “innovation” is trending.

“Innovation is the buzzword. In fact, it has been the buzzword for so long, you could say we’ve developed a cult around it.

Board of Innovation, a global consulting firm, estimates that there are about 70,000 books on innovation available for purchase right now. If you read at a pace of 20 pages per day, it would take you about 2,500 years to go through them all. Looking for a shortcut? A Google search will yield you nearly 2 billion results.

Innovation’s public profile is matched by its priority on the CEO’s agenda. In 2019, 55% of company leaders participating in PWC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey claimed “We are not able to innovate effectively,” which placed that skill gap on top of the list.  The 2020 C-Suite Challenge Report, published by the Conference Board, listed “building an innovative culture” among the top-three most pressing internal concerns of 740 CEOs surveyed globally.”

But author Nadya Zhexembayeva, Chief Reinvention Officer at a consultancy firm, questions whether the use of “innovation” as a buzzword is appropriate. She takes the stance that while CEOs and leaders love innovation, employees hate it. Employees see innovation as a waste of time and effort they are forced to do. For them innovation is perceived as risky and might even lead to them losing their jobs. The term “innovation” evokes fear and sets off alarm bells. Zhexembayeva suggests replacing the word “innovation” with less loaded terminology like “idea” when talking internally with employees.

In my opinion, the issue is bigger than just a verbiage problem. Simply avoiding the label won’t change the attitude towards it. The question is, why does innovation have such a bad reputation for employees?

Maybe it is perceived as doing something different simply for the sake of changing something. Maybe it is because employees are not aware of the big picture, in which case it is difficult to innovate in the dark. Maybe the call for innovation is passed down through the hierarchy of the organization, and it is something that lower level management is told to do. Maybe the fact that it is high risk is to blame.

Whatever terminology you use when you mean innovation, it must manifest itself in norms and behaviors — in culture. An innovative culture needs first to be modeled by leadership and then nurtured so that everyone in the organization can develop the appropriate attitude and behaviors.

There are three factors necessary to gain buy-in and trust from employees.

1. The Big Picture

Employees who believe in the higher purpose of the company realize that without innovation there will be no long-term future. Not only do they have to be able to see the bigger picture; they must also understand why their own work is meaningful and how it is aligned with the overall purpose.

For example, Warby Parker’s “Buy a Pair – Give a Pair” promotion makes clear that the better each employee is at helping the customer the more they will contribute in changing the problem of impaired vision in underdeveloped parts of the planet. Innovation, in this case, means having a bigger impact.

2. Clear Expectations

Risk is a byproduct of every attempt at innovation. It must be clear that the responsibility for that risk doesn’t lay with the individual employee. The parameters and expectations for innovation have to be transparent. How much time and resources are allocated? What is the expected outcome? How do we incentivize and reward new ideas?

Innovation requires clear guidelines around which kind of failure is ok, as when we do our due diligence and intentionally step into unknown territory, and which isn’t, as when we repeat a mistake or take a high risk without adequate planning and preparation.

3. Learning and Cultivating the Right Behaviors in a Safe Environment

It might sound like a contradiction, but innovation must be safe for employees. Exploring new ideas means breaking with habits and patterns that have served us in the past. For example, typically, employees are expected to know what they are doing. They learn the skills  and processes required to be successful, whether those are programming or following a sales script. Innovation requires stepping outside your learned processes and stepping into the unknown. Therefore, learning to thrive with ambiguity is one of the core components of innovation. Not knowing what will work and what doesn’t feels uncomfortable. Thus leaders need to work on increasing the tolerance and affinity for ambiguity.

In my programs, where I teach innovation skills through painting, we work on innovation skills and behaviors in a different environment (art) in which  nothing is at stake, and traditional patterns and ways of doing things are thrown out the window. In this environment employees and leaders get to experiment and explore new skills and behaviors, like ambiguity. They build new mental patterns so that they can become comfortable implementing them into work challenges later on.

Employees are partners in the innovation process when they see alignment with the overall purpose of the organization, when expectations are transparent, and when they feel safe to learn behaviors that drive innovation.

Leaders cannot just demand innovation. The term “innovation” comes from the Latin words innovatus and innovare, which mean to renew and change. It is the job of leadership to make renewal an ongoing process that is both normal and safe. Then, innovation will be so much more than just a buzz word.


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