"follow me" Wang Gingsong: China Pavilion, Venice Art Biennale 2013
The more I research organizational innovation, the more I become certain that rule breaking is its basic tenet and rule breaking in a world controlled by systems thinking comes at personal risk.
Over the last couple of months, I have stumbled across extraordinary stories about how individuals have taken dangerous personal risks with good intentions, to follow a hunch or an insight around their work that has been impeded by entrenched bureaucracy or prevailing popular organizational orthodox. I am focusing my research for the next couple of articles on this area to see if I can discover the conditions, circumstances, motivations and associated patterns that cause these acts of risk taking and what the outcomes might be. (At the end of the article I offer a contact email address if you have similar experiences you would be happy to share).
Some important context around this phenomenon to commence.
Organizational innovation is very difficult because the creative endeavours and behaviours that go into firstly creating an idea and then secondly implementing it to produce innovation are subtle, nuanced and idiosyncratic. No two situations are the same when it comes to organizational creativity and like the very act of conception itself, it takes many little unique ideas to make a single implemented innovation. Yet the technology underpinning larger organizations demands the organization follow the same process by doing the same thing in the same way in the same situation every time. It does seem ironic that the technology age designed as a breakthrough in how work was to be performed still coalesces around industrial age principles – process, automation and adherence.
What happens in organizations as they grow is they become more reliant on technology infrastructure resulting in a culture of compliance that emphasises continual improvement rather than creativity and breakthrough thinking.
This means when leaders decide to pursue a disruptive innovation agenda, they come face to face with the rigidity of technology and the bureaucracy that administers it very often killing the fragile innovation journey before it commences.
This was highlighted to me last week when I was having coffee with the Chairman of one of Australia’s leading innovation commercialisation bodies.
American based originally, he was sent to Australia as the managing director of a creative software technology company that had rested on its laurels and been overtaken by competitors in a market it had once owned outright. He had extensive skills in software commercialisation and innovation and was appointed as a turnaround specialist to reinvigorate the creative thinking, especially within the senior management team.
Not long after joining the company, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) popped his head into his office with an extremely anguished look on his face.
“When are you going to stop the drive by shootings?” the CFO asked.
Rising out of his seat rapidly with urgency and deep concern, the MD responded “What drive by shootings? Goodness me, I haven’t heard a thing. Why didn’t someone tell me about these incidents earlier? Where? When? This is an extremely serious matter!”
Shockingly what the MD was about to learn was he was the perpetrator of these incidents!!
In creative behavioural terms, my colleague the Chairman and then MD is an ideator. Ideators are highly fluent idea generators. Yet their flood of ideas can sometimes overwhelm.
Ideators as leaders regularly frame the possibility of ideas using broad brushstroke questions with the purpose of provoking creative conversations to draw out new insights and new possibilities. Leaders using this style are not seeking concise responses. They are simply provoking the existing culture, introducing the new language of their leadership style into the organization to determine who might engage with them. These stream of consciousness raves though can seem very threatening particularly in an underperforming organization with a culture driven by continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement adherents see innovation as steady improvement in systems, processes and work practices over time providing better productivity, efficiencies and effectiveness as opposed to the ideators’ creative thinking approach that is designed to disrupt the existing order to generate new ideas, new possibilities and opportunities and all the inherent chaos that creates in the first instance..
So a question such as “How can we improve our software delivery processes?” fired off by an MD ideator with a strong innovation mandate in a hall way conversation can create a perceived moment of doubt and tension in the mind of a senior manager steeped in continuous improvement process.
“Hell!! What does the MD want from me? What is he asking? I have spent 7 years on continuously improving our software delivery process systems. It’s state of the art both upstream and downstream and recognized as ground breaking in our industry. Is there something I am missing? What does he know about this topic? Is he looking to someone else to take on this role?” are all subconscious thoughts triggered as a result of a simple off the cuff remark fired off without context.
Ideators, as creative leaders, need to avoid the tendency to share every idea and every thought; to be cautious in their conversations around ideas and to communicate only those ideas that they think have solid promise. They need to take time to frame their questions so when asked, the questions are framed within a context and have clarity, meaning and purpose.
The drive by shooting as metaphor, serious at it might have been had it been real, was a clear warning to the leader there was resistance afoot.
The Chairman’s admission in our conversation was he had erred in his haste to introduce creativity and had failed to provide the strategic innovation context and meaning for it to emerge in a process driven culture.
As a result, he was both perpetrator and victim and the one that was mortally wounded in this innovation journey.
Have you had a similar experience?
If so, I am very keen to hear from you regarding your experiences. If you are happy to share, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org with either a Skype name or mobile number where I can call you directly. All conversations will be treated confidentially.