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Article 8 min read

Innovation requires everyone in the band

By Susan Lahey

Last updated September 24, 2021

It would be amazing if every employee at every company was having regular eureka moments about how the company could innovate, create a better experience for customers, transcend limitations, and reinvent itself at the pace of change. A lot of companies want this—they create Blue Sky sessions and innovation labs to help this happen. But few know how to contend with the maze of invisible obstacles, both cultural and human, that get in the way.

One widely discussed roadblock to innovation is that creativity is not a skill that can be switched on and off. You can’t have a culture that tells people how to do their jobs and aim for benchmarks 38 hours a week and then expect them to be wildly innovative during the other two. The brain just doesn’t work that way.

Plus, creativity is vulnerable. Offering an idea based on a best practice is safe. It’s regurgitating information. But coming up with a new idea that comes out of your own head is personal and far riskier.

Companies also take a huge risk when they try to foster a culture of innovation. Innovation requires loosening the grip on the controls, inviting mistakes, and rewarding failure. That’s difficult to encourage when a company is trying to turn a profit.

Some approaches companies have tried innovation include:

  • Hackathons, where employees create teams to devise solutions to problems and present them to each other and to a panel. The best ones are chosen for development.
  • Innovation teams that field ideas from everyone in the organization and reward those with the best ideas with money or other kinds of compensation.

  • Collaboration platforms ranging from Google docs to Slack where employees can propose, debate, and hone ideas.

But if a company hasn’t had an innovation culture, there are deeper changes it needs to make in how employees and employers relate to each other before any of these approaches are likely to succeed.

Changing the cultural rules

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks is a Behavioral Scientist and Professor of Management and Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where he co-directs the Leadership+Design Studio. He’s done years of research on organizational innovation and is currently working on several theories about how to spark innovation in the workplace. “One of the big epiphanies I’ve had over my career is that to innovate we have to…be much looser in our adherence to cultural norms,” he said.

The cultural norms he’s talking about have employees coming into work, separating their personal lives from their professional lives, and fulfilling specific roles. In these rigid roles, some people are leaders and others are not, so those without the formal title are reluctant to step up and lead. This limits their contributions and undermines their confidence and creativity. Organizations need to decouple leadership from leaders and reunite the personal with the professional, introducing empathy as part of the way people interact so that employees think of themselves as whole human beings making a contribution to an organization.

“One of the big epiphanies I’ve had over my career is that to innovate we have to be much looser in our adherence to cultural norms.”
Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks

“It’s amazing when we try to understand other people as a human being,” Sanchez-Burks said. “We have this notion of acting professional—focus on the task, not the people, and don’t focus on relationships and emotions. We have years of enculturation with those norms and it’s going to be very difficult to switch from that.”

Some companies say they have pulled it off. At LexION Capital founder Elle Kaplan has eliminated top-down management. “My team is not limited to their job title—instead they are limited by what they can accomplish,” she said. “There are still assigned responsibilities, but everybody is free to pitch in on any project, and no one can block a good idea.”

That kind of open collaboration can create a bricolage, something created from a diverse range of what’s available.

“You can get good, useful ideas out of a small group of people by making use of all their diverse knowledge,” Sanchez-Burks said. “It’s a bricolage, mentally stitching together their perspectives into something new.”

When people come together, he said, they generally focus on what they have in common and don’t bring in information or perspectives that are unique. One strategy to foster creativity is to get them to talk about things they don’t share by asking questions like: “What did you think about when you were five?” or “What do you think about when you’re on vacation?”

Another strategy is to ask people to imagine how someone else in the organization might think about a problem by asking, “How do you think Mary would solve this problem?” You’re asking them to pretend to be that person, to try to come up with ideas that you think that person might come up with. Creating this scaffold gives people more confidence to be creative. “Everyone has a bit of panic when they think about white space,” he said.

“You have to think of doing this in baby steps,” he continued. “People don’t feel shy or vulnerable when they think about someone they know in the organization….once people to have a good experience with this they become more and more open.”

When people come together, Sanchez-Burks said, they generally focus on what they have in common and don’t bring in information or perspectives that are unique.

Wabi-Sabi in the conference room

But then companies run into a next-stage problem: employees are throwing out ideas, but they don’t all get picked. And some of those ideas are dramatically altered before they’re adopted.

This, Sanchez-Burks said, is where the principle of Wabi-Sabi comes in. Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese appreciation for imperfection and impermanence. U.S. business culture tends to reward people who can “nail it on the first go,” or “knock it out of the park.” Instead, companies need to encourage employees to embrace ideas that still have to be developed, while recognizing that any idea adopted today may be replaced next year.

“What you really want to think about is how do you create a context in which a presenter shares an idea rather than sells an idea, where the group tries to not just critique but improve the idea?” Sanchez-Burks said.

At some point, the group may decide that they shouldn’t go forward with the idea. But it’s key to culturally embed the notion that it’s about the process rather than the outcome. While the whole person is invited to contribute to the bricolage, the idea is not the person…it’s a separate thing that everyone is working on. It will never be perfect, as per Wabi-Sabi, but it is something everyone is creating for the good of the customer. That’s the benchmark—not whose idea it is or how perfect it was in its first iteration. Once the idea is in play, it becomes about how well it serves the customer, solves the problem, and works with the organization. Hopefully, people learn to enjoy the process of coming up with solutions—even solutions outside their wheelhouse—and working to hone them collaboratively.

While the whole person is invited to contribute to the bricolage, the idea is not the person…it’s a separate thing that everyone is working on.

The rapid fire method

There’s another way to go about all this, the Gap fire method. In 2016, a fire took out a huge warehouse belonging to Gap Inc. It was just months before Black Friday. The company needed to figure out how to recover, fast. It was a catalyst for on-the-fly innovation and everybody pitched in. They came up with a pop-up packing facility; replaced destroyed machinery with new, more efficient technology; and took the opportunity of the disruption to shift their business model to reflect changing customer habits. The whole time, even when employees couldn’t work, they got paid. The company saw them as people with rent payments and kids to feed instead of instruments of production. In response, everybody pitched in to help make the transition.

“Companies are made up of people,” said CEO Art Peck. “In this fire, you just felt the energy of the organization come together, then you saw the results.”

Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to inspire change. Barring that, it takes inspiration.

As Sanchez-Burks put it, “You have to have a little bit of a mindset calibration, a new leadership orientation about how to follow the innovation process regardless of formal authority, power, or position. It’s like a rock band. In most rock bands, people don’t make any money but they love it and they’re engaged. You have to really have some keen leadership skills around what gets people excited. Nobody can get fired because nobody is hired. It’s something they’re doing as volunteers because they love playing music. It’s quite magical.”

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