By Henry Doss
Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn't then it is of no use to us. -- Carlos Castenada
It is impossible to be or become an innovative organization unless and until the issue of culture is your first priority.
There. That's said. It should be pretty clear and unambiguous. If innovation is the topic, culture should be your first concern. If innovative practices, innovative execution, innovative output and innovation as a means to long-term excellence are a desired outcome, your attention should go first to culture. If innovation is a "strategic imperative" or some such other phrase or vision or story line, then culture change should be the path you pursue. Start anywhere else other than culture and at best you will achieve only incremental tactical and structural improvements; at worst, you will create a cynical and disengaged team, one that hears the word "innovation" as . . . just another organizational whim.
We are hardwired to want specific answers to specific problems. So, when we are tasked to "be more innovative" our first inclination is to find stuff to do. Rather than address the broader issue of innovation culture, we default first to specific answers (to what is actually not a very specific question): Build an incubator, an initiative, a program. Assign some staff to lead innovation. Kick off a few tactical programs and call them a program of innovation. And so on. All the while, of course, the organizational culture, in which all initiatives and programs and work plans will reside, is the same culture that was there before; and if the culture was not innovative before tactical interventions, what are the odds of it becoming innovative after a few novel programs are introduced?
Is innovation really that simple?
Probably not. As a result of a need to do stuff, rather than understand and engineer cultural attributes, the world of innovation is fast becoming a world of gimmicks and acronyms and busy work. Because the issue of culture is complex, hard to measure, and hard to quantify, we simply productize innovative gimmicks for easy consumption, and watch them breed.
The proliferation of these products and gimmicks and notions leads us to a world where success is measured by tick marks, not transformation; where progress is judged by a set of bullet points in some presentation, not substantial, long-term, meaningful organizational -- human -- change. It is becoming a world where small, incremental adjustments to the status quo are seen as disruption. It is becoming a world that lacks authenticity, and is at risk of alienating the vast majority of all those in organizations who have innovation thrust upon them, and who consequently participate as passive recipients, rather than active engaged contributors.
To steal a line from Carlos Castenada, the path of innovation many have chosen does not have a heart.
In some ways, the problem is a simple one. We do not distinguish between doing stuff about innovation, and being innovation. That distinction, awkward syntax and all, is fundamentally the first step, the crucial insight, the thing that you absolutely need to get right. This is more than just a subtlety or nuance of language, and much, much more important than anything else that affects long-term outcomes of innovation. We skip making this distinction -- in our language, our thinking and our planning - at our peril.
It is the conflation of doing and being that takes the heart out of innovation. When those two things are treated as conceptually fungible, all manner of bad things can happen, and not much good. All of us-- every single one of us who has worked in any kind of organization, large or small, for-profit or not-for-profit -- has been in a culture that values fast action over right thinking, and sees decisiveness as a virtue and reflection as a vice. But this is precisely where everything goes wrong with innovation.
How many times has this happened: Someone decides that innovation is important to achieve -- whatever. That someone then decides to do innovation or start an innovation initiative, or whatever. Some thing gets chartered, some thing starts to happen, some thing gets deployed . . . and invariably that thing -- that action -- is what everyone will pay attention to, what will get measured, what will get attention. And, as invariably, irrespective of how that thing turns out, innovation will not show up. And this is because innovative output is an emergent factor of innovative cultures, not of tactics. A non-innovative culture, no matter what you throw into it, will not act in an innovative manner; a truly innovative culture will take any input and turn it into something innovative.
This is not to say that doing is not important, because of course it is. All organizations and the individuals who inhabit them are intent on doing things, accomplishing, getting stuff done. Of course. But doing and being are not exclusive of one another; they are intimately related. The danger is not in the doing; the danger is doing in the absence of authentic being.
And so we trivialize innovation by conflating the doing of tactical things with the state of being innovative. Without the latter, without a culture that is itself innovative, all the initiatives and projects and imperatives and so on are at best woefully under-optimized; at worst, they will all fail and innovation will become just another whimsical plan on a shelf.