Innovation thrives on meaning, but superficial innovation talk can lead to stress and fatigue, and thus less creativity, in a company culture.
It is common knowledge that talking the talk is easier than walking the walk. What we still tend to miss is that sometimes, the talk can actually hinder the walk, and in my research I’ve found that this holds particularly true in the field of corporate innovation. Here, excessive and repetitive innovation talk can trigger two issues that are harmful to organizations but have received scant attention: Innovation stress and innovation fatigue. Both can act as powerful barriers to take action on and engage with innovation, yet managers often respond to these by even more innovation talk. This can in turn create a vicious circle, one which can turn an organization’s creative culture toxic.
What, then, is innovation fatigue? In brief, it stands for a situation where invocations of innovation and exhortations for involvement with the same no longer creates engagement but rather tedium and tension. As an example, in one major corporation I worked with, a mid-level manager could easily recall at least 12 separate ongoing innovation initiatives in the organization, and when I asked him how many past such he could recall, he gave up after about 20, but insisted that there had been countless more. This was only the initiatives. He could also recall numerous innovation consultants, speeches from top executives about the importance of innovation, and various creativity workshops with “all kinds of silly games”. He grimaced throughout the listing of these.
It is important to note that this wasn’t a person who was anti-innovation. On the contrary, he stated that innovation was one of his main interests during his studies, and one of the reasons he’d joined the company was because they stated that innovation was important to them. Over the years, and in lived practice, he’d however become disenchanted. Now he stated that he felt that the innovation initiatives were grating, and that hearing about a new one in no way got him excited – just the opposite. This was a man in the grips of innovation fatigue, and there are many more like him. In fact, there are entire organizations, once engaged but now deep in an innovation torpor created by pontificating executives, directionless projects, and consultants more interested in repeating a set of clichés than in truly novel thinking.
To this comes the very real innovation stress that people can feel in contemporary organizations. We’ve been told that we need to disrupt, enact digital transformation, push the envelope and “think outside the box” (that most vile and hopefully soon outlawed of expressions). Today, people are continuously reminded that their very livelihoods may depend on their capacity for creativity and innovation. Yet many managers fail to see the bigger picture of this. They insist on innovative action, yet fail to create the kind of work environment, not to speak of workload, which would be conducive to this. Doing so, they make innovation into something that doesn’t elicit joy or passion, but rather stress and tension. Being told that you should be innovative, yet having every moment of your working day (and then some) filled with meetings, emails, and those TPS reports, is an almost perfect recipe for stress.
These are only two of the major ways in which increasing the amount of innovation talk – be it in meetings, seminars, workshops, or just the water cooler – can make an organization less prone to innovate. What unites them, and others of their ilk, is that they serve to make the concept of innovation more and more meaningless in the organization. In the case of innovation fatigue, the endless parade of innovation engagements makes people feel that it is all just innovation theatre, a play for the galleries. In the case of innovation stress, employees start feeling that calls for innovative thinking are disingenuous, as they aren’t accompanied by the kind of support that would make this possible. In both cases, the organization can start feeling that innovation talk, and through this the concept of innovation, is just so much hot air.
This is why today it is so important that managers and leaders pay attention to the ways in which their calls for innovation and innovative thinking are received and interpreted. Today, as innovation fatigue and innovation stress are gripping more and more organizations, leaders must guard against empty talk and initiatives that tire rather than energize, and put meaning back on the innovation agenda. Leaders must therefore think carefully about the message they impart when they speak up for innovation, and also make sure that this doesn’t overstay its welcome. Rather than killing an organization’s zeal, leaders need to make sure that they introduce innovation only when it is meaningful, when they’re prepared to back up their message, and in a way that makes sure it doesn’t become one more thing to stress out an already overtaxed organization.
Companies need to talk about innovation, but they need to do so in a measured way. Sometimes more isn’t better. Think of innovation talk like you would of seasoning. Too little salt makes for bland food, the right amount of salt can make a dish soar, and too much can make it inedible. The same is true of innovation talk and innovation initiatives. They are powerful things, and as a result should be wielded with care.
Leaders need to realize that innovation isn’t something you just talk and command into being. It requires engagement and enough time to think freely, and most importantly of all, a culture that nurtures creativity rather than one that wallows in superficial initiatives and fancy speeches. Such culture can be built, but sometimes this takes a little less talking, and a little more listening and thinking.
Alf Rehn, author of Innovation for the Fatigued: How to Build a Culture of Deep Creativity (CLICK HERE to get your copy), is recognized as a global thought-leader in the field of innovation and creativity. Rehn is Professor of Innovation, Design, and Management at the University of Southern Denmark, sits on numerous boards of directors, is a bestselling author, and serves as a strategic advisor for hot new startups to Fortune 500 companies.
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