I should listen to Steven Johnson more. Perhaps there’s a reason all this talk of innovation makes me twitch a little. Johnson urges us to listen to the slow hunch and focus on unraveling that instead of chasing light-bulb moments. In other words, trust your gut—if you can’t get it out of your mind, you’re probably onto something.
Johnson was one of many great minds at The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Innovation Forum. This event didn’t actually celebrate achievements, it celebrated how to help people achieve (I knew I was onto something a few months ago). Ultimately, it’s less about creating a “department of innovation,” than it is about having the bravery and leadership to make the sometimes unpopular investments and trade-offs that allow people to see those innovations through.
Cultivating true innovation.
True innovation is cultivated in environments that genuinely energize people. Think about what that means. What we heard was that those environments include a common goal that matters, a philosophically unified team of shared values, access to people from diverse backgrounds, the security to fail and regroup, a physical space that doesn’t feel oppressive and so forth.
Humans are programmed to be risk-averse; it is a survival trait. Robert Tucker says this individual trait naturally adds up in an organizational structure. We need to go out of our way to create safe and stimulating environments for real potential to break through—both physically and psychologically.
Johnson asked why the coffee house in past centuries was so generative to ideas versus colleges. It was perhaps due to the caffeine (seriously!), but importantly, it was about multidisciplinary space where there was a tremendous flow of ideas.
The collisions between these different fields is important. Juxtapose coffee houses with the typical conference room, where many ideas essentially go to die. And death of an idea is OK, provided that it doesn’t also extinguish the pursuit of better or take a human sacrifice along with it…as is so common in today’s corporate environments. In fact, Google’s Laszlo Bock went as far as to say that smart people in organizations rarely experience failure, which leads to them shutting down their capacity to learn. What a terrible waste that is.
Innovation demands risk.
VM Ware’s Pat Gelsinger noted that—as opposed to an investment mentality—most organizational DNA is built around optimization, or squeezing more and more efficiency out of its assets, which inherently runs counter to all this. And Bock reminded us about the plethora of research substantiating the fact that as soon as you start bringing up extrinsic rewards, motivation declines. What businesses have largely created is a model that stifles innovation and nudges people to continue milking the cow by offering up cash, titles and awards as incentives. What is bound to happen?
At one point in the conference, a person working at a nonprofit asked how to take risks in a philanthropically funded culture that doesn’t tolerate failure. The answer was as remarkable as it was encouraging. If we just look at the crowd-funding phenomenon (approximately $15 billion in 2015 by some accounts), it reveals a world asking us to take bigger risks. Companies may not want you to take risks, but people will back you up as you take that shot.
As it turns out, we are only in the ideas business—and able to make a real impact on our clients’ business—if we can truly be in service of the people we employ. Maybe soon, we’ll only be in business if we are able to do just that.