Radically Rethinking the Innovation Essentials Checklist

People Seated in Beanbag Chairs in Open Office EnvironmentOpen offices, ideas boxes and hackathons don’t automatically lead to innovation and how to do it better.

Today’s post is by Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant, authors of The Innovation Race (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

We were recently given the grand tour of a new office designed to improve innovation.

A multinational insurance giant had set up the space on the top floor of a building in Singapore’s financial district, and the standard ‘innovation essentials’ checklist had obviously been consulted. There were trendy co-working spaces with funky seating pods, Foosball tables and ideas boxes. The staff had completed all the right design thinking courses and were being encouraged to join hackathons.

Viewing the impressive skyline from this lofty vantage point gave us the impression that we were at the pinnacle of contemporary innovative achievement. Yet although the company had invested millions in the endeavor, something was wrong.

At the end of the tour the head of innovation led us into one of the colorful co-working rooms, sat us in a brainstorming hub, and confessed that despite the changes people were not engaged in collaborative co-creation. Everything had normalized. Employees had become just as territorial, individualistic, and competitive as they had been, and the company was not getting the results it had hoped for.

Why would an open and apparently up-to-date approach to innovation like this not be working?

Just ticking the boxes doesn’t make it right

Investment in innovation focused activities in general and in innovation labs in particular has dramatically increased over the last few years. In fact spending on R&D continues to increase by up to 10 percent per year in most regions around the world, and almost 40 percent of the largest 200 multinational companies now have dedicated innovation centers with targeted innovation spaces, strategies and tools.

But does investing in the hardware and following a formula like this really lead to better innovation?

Our consultancy work with companies around the world has given us a unique insight into the realities of innovation strategies in action, and through this work we have seen apparently strong innovation strategies fail over and over again.

Many companies appear to be trying to tick off an innovation essentials checklist to ensure there is the freedom to explore and connect, yet perhaps they are missing the main point.

How to really elevate and accelerate the innovation process

Our latest research indicates that innovative cultures are not just about creating open office spaces and opportunities for free exploration. Openness needs to go much deeper – there needs to be an open and connected culture.

Here’s how to go deeper to create a sustainable innovation culture:

Design for adjacent possibilities

The idea behind the open office is to create what science writer Steve Johnson has referred to as ‘adjacent possibilities’, where diverse ideas can bump into each other. This explains why Europe charged ahead in the innovation race during the enlightenment and why, on the other hand, physically and linguistically isolated communities such as those in Papua New Guinea struggled to survive. Proximity has been found to be a significant factor in the sharing of information and ideas, and societies that are located close to areas where cultural exchanges can take place have higher rates of creative output. For proximity to be truly beneficial, though, there also needs to be a preparedness for change.

WHAT TO DO: Design open work spaces, but ensure there are also guidelines for how to use these spaces effectively and that the appropriate training and tools are provided. Employees need to understand why and how to connect purposefully.

Set targets and keep a finger on the pulse

Set deeper culture change targets, and check that these intended outcomes are being reached. Sometimes you might think that everything is set up the way it should be to get the desired results, but the reality might be different. Consider how a number of Silicon Valley companies such as Google have paved the way in setting up trendy open innovative spaces, yet even they could be in danger of failing to understand the core innovation principles. Through a lack of diversity in hiring, bypassing local communities (providing their own transport and facilities), and focusing speaking jargon they could be becoming insulated physically and linguistically. As the author of Willful Blindness Margaret Heffernan has said, “Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, but it does usually breed comfort. which can then lead to insulation.”

WHAT TO DO: Use assessment tools (e.g., the Innovative Change Leader Profile (iCLi) and Innovation Culture (iCi) measures) to get a feel for the current state, to identify the desired state, to set goals and strategies, to check ongoing culture change, and to monitor progress towards those goals.

Build external connections

Close connections through close proximity are a great preparation for innovation, but this just gets you to the starting line. For proximity to be truly beneficial, there also needs to be an openness and readiness to change – plus ongoing connections to external ideas. This is one of the paradoxical pairings that we have discovered in our research that fuels authentic innovation: we need both proximity AND openness to diverse ideas.

Two of Google’s top ‘Innovation Principles’ stem from the idea of open collaboration through close connection and ideas needs to come from anywhere, even outside your own industry. Companies need to recognize that the greatest loss from having an insulated culture may not be the bad publicity, but rather the loss of important diverse connections. Is it possible to get all this from an open office innovation lab? How is it possible to get ideas from outside the industry if it’s so cozy and safe to play and stay in with like-minded people?

WHAT TO DO: Deliberately set up opportunities for external connections, for example through setting up community workshops and external focus groups and through community service opportunities – as well as ensuring there are opportunities for employees to attend conferences to gain connections to new ideas.

It does work

We also recently visited another innovation lab in on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia – 8,000 miles west of Silicon Valley and 4,000 miles south of Singapore. Run on donations, this innovation lab is in a converted warehouse.

The center is filled with a diverse group of people (over 120 staff, 1200 volunteers, and 2000 clients) fully engaged in achieving a clear purpose – empowering and supporting people seeking asylum as they transition to a new country. New ideas are able to connect cleverly designed and carefully monitored collaborative spaces in consultation with the broader community. Thirty novel programs have been set up over the last 10 years to help meet the needs of a thriving refugee community.

So next time you consider throwing money at that beautiful office upgrade or to a design thinking consultant, think first about your organization culture. Ensuring a culture is prepared and built for innovation can make all the difference between innovation inertia and sustainable success.

The Innovation Race– Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to Change a Culture to Change the Game (CLICK HERE to get your copy). As the Directors of Tirian International Consultancy they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international organizations. The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers and business facilitators, and Gaia is an HD researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School.

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One Response to “Radically Rethinking the Innovation Essentials Checklist”

  1. Duane Penzien says:

    A great message. I’ve seen attempts to create a “innovation environment” at my employer, only to see little, if any change. It also collaborates something else I’ve discovered – that encounters with other peoples ideas and viewpoints stimulates innovative thinking in me. I just ordered the book and looking forward to reading it.

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