Innovation is a truly curious beast and most organizations struggle righteously between tradition and change. Do our aspirations justify the risk? Are we thinking big enough? Is there any way to get our dreamers and our doers on the same page? Should we even try? If we isolate and nurture innovation in an incubator or accelerator, will it simply languish and die once transplanted into the wilds of the organization? These consistent cultural questions and pressures often result in diluted aspirations that often inevitably support the status quo. To truly drive transformative innovation, the most important attributes are assumptions, goals, and perseverance.
Being a student of decision making in scientific and technology organizations across industries, academia and federal governments, it is clear that the approaches and challenges are quite similar. With respect to assumptions, cognitive bias is the norm. Most smart and experienced people approach problem solving with significant self-imposed constraints. Thinking is often self-limited based upon assumptions of cost limitations, assumptions (or suspicions) of leadership motivations, compliance risks, unfortunate tarot cards etc. but the most limiting assumptions are usually in the problem or opportunity statement itself. A common example is the ubiquitous dialogue about how to do anything better. Organizational cultures love this challenge and establish numerous methodologies. Break out the sticky notes and people go all in. But, change the question to, "Should we stop doing that and do something instead?" or, "Do we really need to do this at all?" And many people freeze. Challenging the inherent bias that most people bring to creative problem solving is the tripwire of true innovation.
Ironically, this is true because of the inherent organizational limitations that drive the cognitive bias in the first place. For example, in tight financial times as organizational guidance shifts towards cost cutting and efficiency, discussions of doing things better, quickly evaporate.
Challenging the inherent bias that most people bring to creative problem solving is the tripwire of true innovation
Despite rhetoric to the contrary, expectations of quality and performance drop and complacency is likely the result. These are the times when innovations are need most. The correct question could be, "If we can’t afford to do this right, should we be doing it at all?" or, "Should we consider doing this instead?" This is especially true if the process/ service in question is customer facing. No business today can afford to look bad to internal or external customers and not expect dialogue to go out of their control. It is also simply true that you must till the soil to replant the garden. Some things must stop in order for others to grow.
Truly innovate, organizations must double-click on problems time and time again until the right opportunity and answers present. This isn’t just about getting to root causes, it is about getting to the causes of root causes and this can be very threatening. In fact, most organizations clearly avoid it.
Making room for true innovation is also about mature, transparent and clear decision making. It is perfectly okay to decide that a given situation simply needs to stay the way it is but don’t allow time, energy and emotion to be wasted in perpetual hand wringing. That three-day SLA may just need to stay exactly as it is. Of course, this is much easier to do if significant strides are visibly being made elsewhere. Organizations that are chronically trying to fix everything are not likely to accomplish much. Successful innovation is about credibility, focus, and picking winners, it is also about persistence.
True persistence is quite difficult in fast-paced environments. Priorities change, leaders change and people wait things out. Successful transformation stories almost always include tales of perseverance, failure and doubt. These are the true elements of innovation and change. Don’t dread them, expect them. Find the people in your organization who think differently and really listen to them. If they do not exist, hire some.
One of the successes in my career was creating an open source clinical data warehouse that is now freely available and in use by hundreds of universities, businesses and NGOs. What few know is that this project was a result of challenging three significant orthodoxies within the pharmaceutical industry back in 2007. The first was that big pharma could successfully find great value in public-funded open source software. The second was that pharma would eventually manage clinical trials in the cloud and the third was that much could be learned by studying patients across the traditional disease area therapeutic silos.
To me, the world feels like a much less stable place technically, politically, socially and economically than it did back in 2007 and deep solutions are needed now, more than ever. As technology leaders we occupy a unique place of privilege at a time when far better solutions are needed. Please be bold!