Innovation Mindset: What Really Stops You From Innovating?

This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics made their breakthrough discovery of super thin flakes of carbon while ‘mucking about’ in their lab. This continues a long list of discoveries, insights and inventions from over the years that have been attributed to ‘organisational slack’, or employees having the time and space to pursue their own areas of interest creatively. Have you got enough ‘slack’ in your organisation to innovate? Or is it something else that’s stopping you from innovating?

The innovation literature has long made it clear that organisational slack can play a key role in enabling creative thinking to flourish and novel ideas to emerge.

Indeed, some companies notably 3M and Google allow their employees to use 15% and 20% of their time respectively to pursue projects that are of interest to the individual, and which are not currently in the company’s areas of research or pipeline of development. Both companies report that the strategy pays off.

Elsewhere, in other companies, team members sometimes complain that they cannot find the time to innovate. So, how can they address this if they are in organisations where a specific amount of time to innovate is not prescribed from the top?

Time Management for Innovation

Firstly, principles of time management can help. Stephen Covey in his book First Things First, talks about identifying what is urgent and what is important. This is key. The early stages of innovation are rarely urgent, but if innovation is to happen then of course it is very important.

Once identified as important, in Covey’s language, innovation would become a ‘big rock’. Covey then uses the analogy of fitting everything into a aquarium – big rocks, little stones, gravel, sand and water. In order to do this the big rocks have to go in first. So, this is about putting innovation – a big rock - into your calendar – upfront nice and early, before it gets squeezed out by lots of small stones, sand and gravel – the less important things.

Of course, many senior managers are proficient in time management. So if this is the case for you or your team, what can you do if you’re still struggling to find the time for innovation?

Innovation – Not Like Work?

Could it be that innovation activities – don’t seem recognisable as ‘work’ and that’s why they get marginalised?

For some people innovation activities – particularly early stage ones, are very different from the hectic stream of operational work that they carry out most of the time. These early stage innovation activities might involve looking at trends, examining competitive products, talking to consumers and experts, identifying unmet needs and gaining an understanding of emerging technologies.

These innovation activities are often focused on the long term rather than short term and may not be driven by pressing deadlines. Undertaking them may feel very different from managing current operations and fire fighting under relentless pressure.

Could it be perhaps that innovation activities sometime are not even recognisable as ‘work’?  For some people such tasks might even seem too much like fun. Too enjoyable! So much so, that as a result some people may overlook these tasks when they are planning their work. Casting them aside while they attend to what’s urgent and the type of work they are familiar with.

If this is the case for you, maybe it’s time for a rethink. Maybe it’s time to choose this ‘work’ and even dare to enjoy doing it!  

Innovate For a Change!

That’s not to say that innovation is easy. But in its difference from other business activities, it can offer you the opportunity to use skills and talents you have, that are not always needed in your operational work – notably your creative thinking skills and imagination. This can be refreshing and rewarding.

In a battle of urgency, short term operational activities will always win out. But for a business to be successful there is a need to balance managing operational issues and short term results with making long term strategic moves, envisioning the future... and getting on with innovation!

Read more about 'mucking about' in the lab and winning a Nobel Prize.

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