5C’s For Focusing Organizational Innovation

“Your primary job as a leader is not to innovate; it is to become an innovation architect, creating a work environment that helps your people engage in the key innovation behaviors as part of their daily work.”  -Miller, Wedell-Wedellsborg via Innovation As Usual: How To Help Your People Bring Great Ideas To Life

Far too often, we approach the idea of innovation as this nebulous concept, in much the same manner as we might consider the existence of a distant planet. We know its there, we know its size, we know its distance from us, we even know its atmosphere and what it is made up of, and yet, we still wonder how much do we really know about it?

For many, innovation is that distant planet in their organization. There is this acknowledgement that it exists, both internally and externally, as well as inside and outside of their profession. There also may have even been opportunities to attend “innovative” conferences, read up on the research around it, as well as learn of the myths that still tend to surround it.

And yet, it still seems to exist as this nebulous concept, this distant planet that we don’t truly understand or know enough about to feel comfortable in exploring. 

So what often happens is that we approach it in our organizations and institutions with these broad stroke statements and platitudes. We talk about being innovative, taking risks, moving quickly to failure, pushing the envelope, being disruptive, thinking different, without truly defining what that means, what that sounds like, or what that even looks like, for individuals, teams or the organization as a whole.

Most of the time, we approach it with a hope that we will get “innovatively lucky.” If we keep it as a nebulous concept and allow it to exist as this distant, far-away planet in our organization, maybe people will be willing to step up and provide some new, imaginative and creative ideas and thinking that will push us forward in some dynamic fashion or manner.

We approach it with strategic hope.

In many instances, we don’t want to scare people away from being creative or innovative, so we keep the rhetoric light, easy and safe. Often using “innovatively lucky” and “hope” as the strategic plan in moving forward. We try and get people to go play in the safety of the “innovation sandbox,” hoping they will provide some new insight, until we can truly wrap our heads around what innovation really means for the individuals and teams working in our organization or institution.

On the other hand, while we know that innovation will be vital to moving forward more relevantly as individuals, teams and organizations, we also tend to fear that invoking terms like accountability, constraints, focus, metrics, and standardization would end up diminishing and depleting our willingness to pursue and engage in any innovative efforts or pursuits. Instead, we rely on “hope” that the innovative efforts will, for some reason, be tightly aligned to the work of our teams and the organization or institution.

Which, more often than not, will not be the case. 

Too often, when there are no constraints or focus for innovation, the innovative efforts of people are not always closely aligned to the vision of the organization. So instead of terms like accountability, metrics and standardization diminishing and squelching people’s innovative efforts, what really happens is that the lack of innovative focus or alignment to a north star, more often than not, extinguishes the innovative spark as the organization finds itself unwilling, unwanting, or unable to pursue those innovative efforts and outcomes.

The inability or unwillingness of the organization or its leadership to focus the innovative efforts on the front end, ultimately leads to frustration and disinclination, especially as people’s innovative efforts are not only not “lucky,” more often than not, they do not lead to or come to fruition on the back end.

Today’s organizations and institutions need to approach innovation in a much more transparent, focused, and systemic way across the entirety of the organization. 

There needs to be a north star, a direction and a vision conveyed transparently throughout the organization of what is trying to be accomplished. A direction of how people’s innovative efforts, if they are to provide the greatest value for our individuals, teams, and those that the organization serve, need to be aligned to this north star.

As Paul Plsek shares in the book Accelerating Health Care Transformation with Lean and Innovation, “If we are going to innovate, where are the areas and what are the big dots we are trying to move?” 

Otherwise, innovation without a vision or north star to serve as a guide, becomes little more than a discovery game of trying to find the new, rather than a deeply empathic process of searching for value creation that leads to both individual and collective impact.

Or, as Eric Ries shares in The Lean Startup, “Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem.”

In fact, when innovation is not creating authentic value or a better way forward for those it serves, it is often found to be unnecessary or unwanted. Which is often the case in many organizations, as we find ourselves caught up in the chase for the shiny and new becoming the real value proposition.

We find that our focus becomes bent on creating the next breakthrough product, service, support, or program, rather than focusing in on and considering how our innovative efforts are creating an experience of improvement and value.

It is within that mindset, that people are intrigued and drawn to the new, as they see the benefits and the value proposition that is being provided and offered over what currently exists.

Unfortunately, if we continue to approach innovation as this vague and ambiguous concept of how we change our way forward, we will continue to see diminished efforts from our individuals, teams, and organizations.

For continuous improvement and innovative efforts to be engaged across our systems, there needs to be an understanding and focus of what we are trying to achieve, what we are trying to improve, and what we innovating towards.

Especially when our improvement and innovation efforts necessitate people working their way collaboratively through and iterating cycles of experimentation, discovery, learning, spread, scale, and ultimately standardization, which are not only necessary, but ongoing, iterative and repeating.

To better support the innovative efforts of our individuals, teams and organizations, as well as shifting away from the nebulous concept of “hope” and “innovatively lucky” serving as our way forward, there are 5C’s that can be considered for focusing the efforts of the organization in a more strategic manner to better engage and improve the innovative efforts of its people and teams:

  • Clarity – How are leaders and the organization creating a deeper understanding of the vision and north star? How are innovative efforts playing into and aligning with that vision and north star? Providing clarity and coherence on the front end, keeps people from being frustrated on the back end. It keeps the leaders, the organization, as well as individuals and teams from being at odds with each other as they find that their innovative efforts are in vain, as they are misaligned to moving the organization forward towards the determined vision.
  • Capacity – Platitudes and permission are not enough to support people in their innovative efforts. If we are going to expect our individuals and teams to be more innovative, if we are going to be transparent in how we focus and align our innovative efforts, then we also have to be prepared to provide the opportunities to build capacity and capability to engage in innovative work, at all levels of the organization. Otherwise, we move our people and teams towards organizational frustration when we provide capacity without autonomy, or autonomy without capacity. This is not an either/or proposition, rather it is one of AND.
  • Constraints – Providing flexible constraints does more to engage, than diminish the creative and innovative efforts of individuals and teams. Too often, the question we start and stay with is, “What can we do?” But we can’t be afraid to also ask ourselves, “What should we do?” Just because we can do something does not mean that it should be done. Understanding the design of what you are trying to accomplish through your innovative efforts better allows for creating the constraints that drive people and teams towards those outcomes. Once we have determined “What we should do?” we can then begin to consider and ask “How might we?”
  • Collision – Impact, impact, impact. Innovation is most easily adopted when it has individual and collective impact. Innovation should be solving a problem or problems, not adding to them. It is vital to not only keep focused on the organizational north star, but just as much on the value proposition of what these innovative efforts will provide to the individuals and teams within the organization.
  • Challenge – While innovation can be both incremental and disruptive, it should be invested in reaching challenging targets. If it is easily accomplished, attained and accepted, then how truly innovative was it? We have to understand that with any innovative effort, the change that often accompanies it will be met with some form of pushback. Understanding that will allow us to not be inhibited by the willingness to set challenging targets for our innovative efforts.

Consideration of these 5Cs, especially in a time when words like “creativity” and “innovation” are often thrown around in platitudes, allows an organization to focus their innovative efforts in providing real problem solving power and new value propositions for their people and teams.

“The starting point lies in realizing something important: innovation may seem to be an elusive phenomenon, but the possibility of innovation permeates our lives. Just think about it: every single day, people face the opportunity to try something new, to do something different from how they did it yesterday.  -Miller, Wedell-Wedellsborg via Innovation As Usual: How To Help Your People Bring Great Ideas To Life