Jeffrey Philips wrote recently a blog entitled “what really blocks innovation” that he has seen at executive level towards innovation when introducing the work mat approach he and I developed. He put these into four framing boxes that make up the potential barriers. I agree with all of what he says and more.
I’d like to go a little deeper with a suggested way to surface these deeper personal hidden blockages that you do find in working with innovation, that the work mat brings out. It is surprising as they often have real commonality once surfaced and then you need to find the dedicated time to allow them to be fully discussed, as they are critical to unlock.
Often in innovation adoption there are so many hidden barriers that need drawing out and resolving. Take a read of Jeffrey’s observations, as they clearly triggered my own approach of how to deal with them which I thought I’d share here. As Jeffrey states there are “very different perspectives, different goals and even different definitions between and among members of many executive teams.” The key is to surface these.
We both totally share this point that Jeffrey raises, that “sustained innovation can only occur when there is clarity about goals, alignment within the executive team to the goals, deep commitments to appropriate staffing and resource allocation, and the willingness to lead into risky or uncertain initiatives. When these factors are present, innovation can flourish.”
To get to this point we need to draw out those real hidden concerns that inhibit innovations adoption at executive level. We need to trigger ‘collective’ discussions so the team can relate and share their concerns and offer up solutions that breaks through those barriers.
Surfacing hidden barriers is hard work
To surface hidden barriers that might be blocking innovation does needs a conscious effort, a consistent questioning, validating and exploring to “peel away” and get at the root of the problem. Often it is simply the fear of moving from the current established practices into new ways and that stepping over is very hard and often very personal. When it comes to getting an executive team to recognize this and then make a collective team move is extremely hard, it needs a lot of debate, facts and recognition, that this behavioral change- as that is what it is- needs to be taken if they believe in innovation.
This is one of the real value points of having an external adviser as the facilitator and where the value of the Executive Work Mat starts kicking in. It is very hard for a member of a team, including the CEO, to instigate a change of the magnitude needed for innovation to really be embraced and adopted without specialized help.
Innovation requires concerted, dedicated efforts to take hold, to become fully embedded and run through the veins of the organization as the new blood type. Those famous antibodies kick in from all sides to protect the status quo, keep doing “business as usual.” The external adviser has the tough job of grappling all those objections to the floor, hence why we call it a work mat.
Stimulating the innovation carriers
I’ve outlined previously about the issues surrounding the hidden human dimension of innovation: “It is the pivotal role of people as innovation carriers – their networks, collaborations, knowledge flows, interactions and tacit knowledge – and how innovation itself is a potent competitive force that drives productivity”. To allow innovation to flow within organizations requires the senior executives to address their own potential inhibitions so they then become the innovation carriers and allow the true force of innovation to be unleashed.
It is through engagement that allows innovation to happen. We need to make innovation the social process it needs to be but this starts from the top, leaders have to come together and decide to lea. They need to surface their own hidden barriers to innovation otherwise many others within the organization simply stumble along in their own interpretations of how innovation fits within the grand scheme of things. Or they simply “wait” or never change as they don’t see the direction coming from the top of the organization. Leadership is required for innovation to really make that transformational hold.
We need to re-frame innovation as a series of challenges
Let me explain part of the power of the Executive Innovation Work Mat. I think it is important to offer any change deriving from the work coming out of the work mat as innovation challenges that need addressing, as necessary issues to be aligned and clarified. The work mat can only trigger, its outcomes need resolution and commitment.
For me managers relate to challenges, they are trained to respond, to investigate, to surface the issues and find ways to tackle the problems. Innovation management is no different. Part of the design of the work mat is to surface the gaps that exist that requires executive resolution so to allow innovation to be fully integrated within organizations and aligned with strategic goals and objectives.
Also the work mat although stemming from initial work at the Executive and Senior level of organizations needs to have a “cascading effect.” The work mat outcomes need articulating, communicating and eventually becoming the adopted common language framework of the organization to gather around so alignment can potentially happen.
Addressing hidden barriers and personal blockages through ten challenges
So for each executive to address innovation I believe lies ten challenges they need to question within themselves so as to answer and then collectively discuss. These allow a clear framing dialogue to unblock innovation and bring together clarity of where innovation needs to fit within the organization going forward.
The ten challenges can actually have a vital part to play in cascading this down the organization, for everyone to reflect upon and address. They become part of the communication mechanism to form a common language for innovation. Different views can surface for the challenges but they all need addressing.
The ten innovation change challenges
Addressing the issue of unfamiliar responsibilities – new and different ways of working, of understanding, of allowing innovation to take hold and flourish is often demanding new ways of responding, often adding to increasing responsibilities. This needs surfacing
Innovation demands new directions – making significant changes to the way the organization is run is very challenging, potentially disrupting and needs thinking through at the top level well.
Inherited problems always surface – addressing countless and inherent problems is messy and requires dedicated resolution. Changing a culture to become more innovative can be a massive step in structure, organization and policies.
Problems within the organizations make up – inadequate experience and resistance to change especially surface when a person is not equipped to deal with it. Installing innovation capacity, capabilities and competencies needs figuring out
High stakes of innovation – demanding breakthrough innovation makes everyone feel increasing vulnerable, increasingly visible and leadership has a real responsibility to manage this risk and set of fears. They need to be ready to ‘positively react and encourage’ both in supporting winning solutions and extracting positive learning from failures.
Scope and scale of innovation – Managing in scale and scope is demanding and requires well thought through systems and processes. To scope innovation needs robust business case approaches, its flexibility in its management and then to scale this up requires well established approaches and clear commitments to its engagement and execution.
External pressures multiply – everyone has an opinion outside the organization, let alone inside. Balancing these different interfaces and the pressures from these as you explore innovation needs managing well. Avoid that trait of just keeping raising expectations and actively work at the alignment for the ability to deliver on the promise.
Influencing without full authority – key activities within innovation usually demand that you become reliant on others. You need to spend (seemingly) inordinate time explaining and gaining others buy in and their own identification with concepts so as to move emerging innovation concepts along the pipeline. You need to find often imaginative ways of attracting across the resources needed. This is especially hard for senior managers to adapt too, the need to attract across, instead of simply expect, demand and simply take.
Work more with a listening and feedback culture – this can be totally different from the way business has been conducted today, through a more hierarchical structure. Flattening organizations to allow greater two way flow sucks up time; it simply undoes or unpicks command and control over time. It takes time to establish and gain the confidence and momentum. You need to allow more for debate, it shifts and alters the hierarchy and structures and that is a big step into an unknown, yet it is necessary for organization change, to allow innovation to truly flourish on a more sustaining basis.
The need to develop work group diversity – innovation asks for more diversity in opinion, it draws out more in thinking, in discipline, in alternative approaches and solution. This often leaves senior executives feeling they are less in control, reliant on other and that can feel scary and surface their own insecurities, buried increasingly as they moved up the organization and took on responsibility and accountability. It challenges often their very notion of management as they have known and experienced it. Innovation in its management challenges many past notions of managing.
Each of these ten innovation challenges needs to be surfaced at the right time within any executive work mat discussion. Each one, individually can block innovation from advancing. Finding that right moment is not easy to draw these out but it is certainly necessary, otherwise those hidden barriers never come to the surface and get resolved.
The real barriers to allowing innovation into organizations to flourish are these blockages. The job of the work mat and within the sessions is not just to align the seven parts of the work mat as simply an academic exercise itself but to really wrestle and grapple with those tough questions, that leadership engagement for innovation and what it really means to deliver a cohesive framework that the organization can work from with growing confidence.
Reducing concerns, addressing risks and making considered decisions are what senior executives are trained and schooled to be good at. To allow innovation to take hold, the key is to work hard at surfacing the known and hidden dimensions blocking innovation. These ten challenges can ‘break open’ the road blocks. Clearly any innovation journey, if seriously undertaken, needs some really dedicated work. The Executive Innovation work mat facilities this as the central gathering point and that is why Jeffrey and I really believe in its value to innovation’s future within organizations.
We have to often remember senior managers are used to being successful by competing. The genuine change in their mindsets and understandings they need to often undertake for innovation is sometimes difficult to adapt too and sustain, as they are often on a steep and unexpected learning curve themselves.
Like all aspects of change, this is only achieved through engaging them to practice, to use the work mat as the communicating mechanism for positive reinforcement as the strategic innovation framework, where all involved can learn and benefit. This calls for a collective and real collaborative effort but the return is worth it, they are making the decisive contribution to establishing a sustaining innovation within their organization. They are beginning to change the way the organization needs to work.
The original list of the ten challenges has been adapted from “creating learning experiences without changing jobs” by Cynthia McCauley at the CCL in 2006. I’ve applied it for a way for surfacing innovation issues and personal concerns at executive and organization levels.