Why Success Can Lead to Innovation Blindness
Consider this scenario: A semi-truck has struck a low clearance bridge. It's wedged in and blocking traffic. You call a towing company, and they can't pull it out — it has to be unwedged first. So, you think about a variety of solutions. Maybe call in a team of metalworkers to cut the vehicle out. Yet, you don't want to damage the bridge any further, and getting the team there with the necessary equipment is going to take a few hours. Now a crowd is starting to gather around the scene. Bystanders ask about the situation, and you explain it's just going to take some time to get it unwedged. Then a 12-year-old boy speaks up, saying, "Why don't you just let the air out of the tires?" A brilliant, elegant, and no-cost solution. Why didn't you think of it?
New ideas and innovations are often so obvious, they’re actually difficult to identify. They can't be created like widgets, yet many organizations believe that with enough pressure, impetus, and initiative, innovation can be produced. Some companies create cross-functional task forces, or idea competitions to make it happen. Or they hire an outside consultant to help draw out innovation by going through critical thinking exercises. Yet if these efforts actually worked, organizations wouldn't be continuing to look for new methods to address the problem.
Well-entrenched companies seem to hold all the keys to success–they have the means to attract top talent and the resources to support the launch of new innovations. But even successful companies don’t capitalize on these capabilities. Even they show symptoms of innovation blindness — failing to respond to customer feedback and continue to do what they’ve always done, despite the fact the market may no longer value what they deliver.
Innovation blindness is caused by holding onto outdated assumptions and internal overconfidence that the organization has all the answers. Opportunities to innovate are overlooked, dismissed, or remain unexplored. Yet the problem isn't lack of process — it's organizational mindsets and behaviors. Fostering organizational innovation requires two things — exposure and exploration of the new.
Exposure means getting employees out of the building. Getting them exposed to new environments, perspectives, processes, and situations. Working within your organizational bubble, where feedback and ideas are reinforced by the proverbial echo chamber, will not garner anything new. Employees need to be intentionally exposed to customers in their own working environment. Employees need to see first-hand how other organizations operate, even outside of your industry. Employees need to get periodically removed from the day-to-day, interrupting the rhythm of sameness and jolting their thinking through stepping back from a myopic perspective.
How can companies increase employee exposure?
A great way to do this is to develop formal Action Learning programs. Action Learning is becoming directly exposed to specific business challenges and participating hands-on in the development of solutions. This approach engages employees who would traditionally be on the sidelines and enables them to be exposed to different perspectives and ways of thinking. For example, Novartis, a world leader in health care, formed Action Learning Groups with six noncompetitive organizations to work on shared issues that cut across all their companies. Corning uses Action Learning for diversity training, where employees are put into diverse gender and race balanced groups to develop new approaches to handling issues involving sexual and racial bias.
Exploration means providing employees time to discuss, debate, inquire, and question new ways of doing things. Developing a new idea requires thinking time - an opportunity to reflect and ask 'why' something is the way it is. Why it couldn't be done a different way. Why it hasn't been addressed before. This exploration enables employees to practice processing information differently. When you've been operating on autopilot, it takes a bit of effort to turn off that reflex and switch to a more active mode of thinking. Exploration also needs fostering and encouragement, as many times the first idea isn't always the best idea.
How can companies increase employee exploration?
A simple way to address this is through Growth Mindset training. A Growth Mindset is a belief that ‘brains and talent’ need to be enhanced through continuous learning and encouraging resilience. While labeled as a mentality, a Growth Mindset is a learned behavior. Organizations that have established a Growth Mindset report that employees feel more empowered, committed, and receive more support for collaboration and innovation. A study conducted at seven Fortune 1000 companies found those with an organizational Growth Mindset had 49% of employees stating innovation was fostered and 65% stating risk-taking was supported. This mentality encourages employees to explore new ideas through direct support of that behavior.
Without exposure and exploration, your organization will eventually succumb to innovation blindness. The idea that revolutionary innovations will spring forth from formal directives is equivalent to believing if you say you want something, it will simply appear. Generating real innovation requires an intentional effort to increase exposure and foster exploration for employees. By creating the environment for ideas to flourish, your organization will more easily discover those elusive innovations which bring about revolutionary change.