What must happen for ‘innovation’ to become ‘normal’?


If the job ‘head of innovation’ didn’t exist, because everybody was innovative-by-nature, then what would heads of innovation do? Where would they channel their bravery? What would they take risks on, if everyone around them was taking risks, too? If everyone in a company had great ideas, would you even need someone whose job it was solely to come up with them? If the head of innovation job didn’t exist, would there be too many ideas?

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We started &us to help companies build better products and services. And quicker, so they didn’t go out of business. Selfishly, as regular customers, we just wanted the world around us to be better, but we also noticed that a lot of companies needed a hand, and they needed it without jargon. This is because in most companies, innovation isn’t normal.

What does ‘normal’ even mean? Ironically, it’s a weird, subjective word; people’s definitions differ. It’s used in arguments: “BE NORMAL!” and as a critique “that is NOT normal” and referred to as a comfort zone “back to normal.” But in the main, normal is understood, and is tolerated, if not embraced. Normal is a powerful social dynamic that is incredibly difficult to shift.

So why isn’t innovation normal in most companies? The simple answer is because it would make employees difficult to control and managers are taught to control their employees, micro-manage and hoard responsibility. But allow me to address this question backwards, because a lot of what we recommend to clients — who are often in innovation roles — doesn’t exist in their organisation, and that’s the problem. Here’s what we tell them.

1. Find out what’s getting in the way

Human beings are fairly simple, and we adapt quickly to our surroundings. You’re unlikely to do something without permission if you got told off when it happened last. You’re unlikely to be playful when your environment and routine signals otherwise.

So, if you want an innovation mindset everywhere, first you need to play detective. This is where most organisations fail, because they don’t want to admit what’s wrong. People live in fear of blame and problems are rarely seen as opportunities.

2. Design a playground

Seriously, when was the last time you played at work, that wasn’t on some awful cliched foosball table in your ‘cool’ canteen? (No offence to foosball fanatics, by the way.)

A playground isn’t just shorthand for chaos! Even a playground has rules: official and unofficial ways of ensuring people have the most fulfilling time possible. Once you’ve figured out what’s getting in the way, you need to be clear on what behaviours you want to see. This should be a collaborative opportunity to agree the culture you’d love to have and what you need to do to bring the best out of each other as you change. Be careful to not rush this part. It’s easy to say you want people to be “empowered, take risks and be creative”. Much harder to work out what the hell that means.

3. Guard don’t govern

Most businesses are top down, riddled with unnecessary red tape and painful ecosystems of office politics.

You want progress to actually occur, right? Well then it can’t be slowed down by business politics and stakeholder management. The best way to approach change, is to be honest about the politics. Some people are naturally more predisposed to an innovation mindset. Pick your pioneers, your pirates, and form a team of people happy to go against the grain and cause good trouble. But remember, teams need to be guarded and not bossed around. Allow them to act instead of asking permission. People won’t succeed if you don’t let them.

The most important thing to appreciate is that normalisation is a social process. You won’t get it from admin: charts and announcements and new initiatives. Innovation starts and ends in culture. Take veganism, for example: a massive change for humans that’s growing in popularity every year. It’s only progressed as a movement because people have been shown the alternatives, given the freedom to play with their diets and educated on the positive benefits a vegan diet provides. And, well. It’s a journey, isn’t it? No one’s going to prison if you accidentally slip up and eat a bacon sandwich.

In a utopian world of work, the role of head of innovation wouldn’t exist because everyone would have that spark inside them that craves positive change. Everyone would want to get a little better every day. It’s possible, because we’ve seen it! But even that perfect environment, you still need the leaders. The ones who are willing to take a leap first, and bring everyone along with them. The ideas people who’ll start a fire that gets everyone excited. When innovation is normal, all we can all do is get better.

Want to talk about making innovation normal? Contact us now.

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