Stagnating? Innovate how you innovate with these 5 ideas

If a project has disruptive potential, it should make you uncomfortable.Throughout this past year, I’ve been having conversations with innovation leaders from a couple of BIG companies about re-inventing their innovation capability. The pattern of conversation: we’ve had a good run, but feel that our process for making innovation happen is delivering incremental results. Bureaucracy has developed, and so we aren’t taking a lot of risks anymore. How do we shake ourselves out of it?

This is a classic situation of the initial innovation enthusiasm becoming stagnant because innovation’s main killers are not kept at bay: GroupThink and ExpertThink.

One leads to consensus, and the other to unchallenged best practices. In combination both lead to stagnation. Later on, it will become more difficult to innovate because silence and fear will become the norm. Then you will really have a challenge in your hands!

You will see the following symptoms when this happens:

  • Time from idea to launch is longer because there are more checkpoints to make;
  • Ideas become incremental because they no longer have the same enthusiasm as in the beginning;
  • You start playing not to lose, which means you are reacting;
  • Shortcut taking becomes the norm because there is a focus on the short-term;
  • Collaboration is just something that is there, not something that enables.

Anyway, what do you do if you need to innovate how you innovate?

Every company’s situation is different, some are R&D oriented, others have dedicated innovation teams that act as catalysts to the daily operations, while others have a more integrated organization where everyone is an innovator.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for innovation, but there is one truth: to re-invent is to challenge assumptions; that is what you must do.

For practical purposes, I’m going to focus on the “dedicated innovation team” approach because it is the model that in my experience best counters the “stagnation” scenario. This model is a type of SEAL Team that acts with speed, force and purpose; it does what no one else is willing to do.

To innovate how you innovate, here are some key principles:

  • Get super uncomfortable. Make a list of the most courageous, challenging projects in your organization. Ask yourself which ones make you uncomfortable because they could potentially change the way you do business. If a project has disruptive potential, it should make you uncomfortable.
  • Bring in a fresh set of eyes. If your main innovation team has been around for a while, with the same members; it may be time to change some of the people on it. At some point, no one challenges anything because expert think, myopic thinking,  creeps in and everyone feels as though they’ve become an expert at what they do. To avoid this, use the power of the outsider, diversity and migration begets innovation.
  • Small team, big action. Continuing to the previous point, your team needs to fit on a small table. Anything bigger than that is automatic groupthink. As an example of what you can do to avoid this, Jeff Bezos utilizes the two pizza rule where if a team can’t be fed be two pizzas alone, that team is too large. Agility is a direct result of how fast you communicate and act on knowledge.
  • Cut down the number of decision makers. When bureaucracy starts showing it’s stinky head, that means there are many decision makers. Cut it down to one or two people who are the clear authority, someone has to own it. Disruption doesn’t work in consensus.
  • Create tension. The reason for building a new innovation team that aims to change the way you do things, is to create tension. The act of thinking and acting differently opens you up to uncertainty, tension will naturally follow. This is a good sign that you are getting uncomfortable. To commit to innovation, you have to do the unexpected.

Anytime I hear representatives from BIG companies say that they feel like they need a kick in the pants, I get excited. That is always a good sign. It means that they are aware that something is wrong, and the problem will only get bigger if they don’t act decisively.

Bottom line: Your innovation capability is not set in stone. People become bored with the same old thing, habits form and so processes become stale. This is a common issue in big organizations that most rarely confront. The only constant is change, so you have to be constantly agitating yourself, and the organization, to avoid cognitive stagnation. This is how you can start driving disruptive innovation in your organization.