Innovation: too much talk and not enough thinking

Alf Rehn looks at ways of fostering creativity instead of obsession with superficial ideas

Prof Alf Rehn believes organisations should practise what he terms “deep innovation”.

Prof Alf Rehn believes organisations should practise what he terms “deep innovation”.

 

When Finnish Prof Alf Rehn was asked to deliver a presentation on innovation to the executive team of a major US tech corporation, he decided to undertake an little experiment. He composed and delivered 20 minutes of nonsense, employing every empty slogan he could think up.

“It started out gently with exhortations such as ‘we need to disrupt transformation and to transform disruption’. It made nonsensical claims about the power of business model innovation. I proudly declared the need to ‘find the white spaces in the blue oceans’ and told the audience that they needed to ‘be in the box that you think outside of’. If you could make sense of it, it would mean that you were not so much an innovator as a zen master not quite on this earthly plane,” he recalls.

The audience listened intently, diligently taking notes.

Rehn asked someone to recap. An eager vice-president volunteered only to get stumped when he couldn’t understand his notes. When Rehn fessed up about his insincerity, the same vice-president came back meekly to observe, “but you sound just like the others”.

The phoney presentation highlighted how an industry has built up around shallow innovation. Rehn estimates that about 7,000 English-language books with the word “innovation” in their title have been published in the last five years, not to mention the numerous LinkedIn posts, Twitter feeds, blogs and White Papers that are churned out by so-called innovation experts. As someone who reads extensively in this field, he says that the most telling feature of this material is how repetitive and boring it is.

“As innovation talk has become more and more superficial, we have started seeing a narrowing of innovation thinking where people look to repeat whatever buzzword is beloved at the moment – be it gamification, open innovation, freemium as a business model, or AI – rather than what impact it may have.”

The problem is that framing everything around innovation debases the term and as Rehn notes, it no longer rallies and focuses the imagination of those in the firm but fatigues and bores them instead.

Innovation for the Fatigued is Rehn’s own contribution to this oversized publishing genre with his pitch being that organisations should practise what he terms “deep innovation” instead.

Acknowledging that some could accuse him of being guilty of his own form of sloganeering, he says that deep innovation is different and involves radically rethinking major problems and potential solutions.

Having a higher purpose lies at the heart of this. Where shallow innovation is about extending existing lines, changing appearances and being profit and consumption-focused, deep innovation is bold, ambitious and aims to make a real impact in solving major problems.

Rehn draws the analogy of shallow innovation being creating an app to find the best time to go to the beach while deep innovation is about creating a way to clean plastics from the ocean.

Among the specific barriers to real innovation he sees is that too few people are involved in the innovation process, resulting in a clear failure to capture the organisation’s cognitive surplus, as he terms it.

“Too many people are excluded from the innovation process, so we need to be more inclusive and create psychological safety so as many people as possible feel free to express their ideas. Just because people don’t wear cookie glasses and far-too-tight jeans doesn’t mean that they are not a fount of good ideas.”

Similarly, innovation doesn’t always come from the most obvious sources.

“The solution to a major world health crisis might well be cooked up in a small firm in Ireland rather than in an Apple, Google or Tesla or from someone else sitting in a plush office in Palo Alto. We might be in danger of creating images that might be difficult for other smaller companies to look up to because it doesn’t fit our narrative of innovation.”

Pacing

One of the more interesting chapters in Rehn’s book relates to the pacing of innovation, where he notes that management has a toolbox of times.

In some cases, agile spurts may be appropriate, classically seen in industries such as software where a minimum viable product is developed, often by start-ups restricted by resources such as time, cash or knowledge. They test quickly, fail fast and while not always getting the right answers, they unearth clues that drive them towards the ultimate solution.

“The message is don’t get it right, get it done. The reason that works is that if you are expected to do something in seven days rather than seven weeks, your levels of ambition change. The power of compressed times is that they make organisations more action focused while at the same time, lessening the cost of experimentation.”

Chief executives who seize on clear example of best practice can also take advantage of the power of moments, he says. Too often when an employee presents an example of a good innovation, they get a nod or a polite round of applause. Instead, the CEO should say “This is a clear example of exactly what we should be doing. Being very specific in our feedback feeds a sense of purpose.”

Innovation is often a long slog and there is an absence of patient capital as the World Economic Forum has labelled it. Rehn cites the case of Chester Carlson the pioneer of dry photocopying received the patent that underpins this technology in 1942. It was 17 years, however, before this technology was commercially exploited in the Xerox 914, described for many years as the most successful single product of all time.

Among the approaches suggested here are making small bets on big ideas and pooling knowledge and resources in tech clusters and technology transfer programmes.

Sometimes the best way to encourage innovation in an organisation is to totally disregard it by taking a holiday from it, he adds. The reason a pause or a break works is because paradoxically, it creates both calm and tension. The team comes back to the challenges refreshed and stimulated in the same way that initiatives such as capping overtime and restricting the use of emails outside office hours have consistently been proved to increase efficiency rather than limiting it.

Rehn says that far from becoming fatigued, we need to get excited about the possibilities deep innovation brings. “In the age of big data and AI, imagination is the one true advantage we have,” he concludes.

LEADING BETTER INNOVATION

Call out nonsense: Every organisation has empty innovation talk. Leaders need to show courage to call this out and should ask pointed questions about shallow innovation.

Respect uncertainty and doubt: Engage with doubters rather than punishing them. Respect that not everyone wants to play innovation games.

Challenge group-think: If everyone in the organisation is focused on novelty, for example, leaders need to remind them to focus on impact.

Display insecurity: By being transparent about not understanding a new technology or by expressing that they don’t know what “disruption” really is, a leader can deepen an innovation culture by making it more honest.

Innovation for the Fatigued – how to build a culture of deep creativity, by Alf Rehn is published by Kogan Page

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