There is an old adage, sometimes called “Hanlon’s razor”, which states the following: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. This is fine advice for many a study of work and organization, but it seems especially apposite when talking about innovation. For when we look to organizations, and their attempts to innovate, the problem is rarely that there is someone out there actively trying to sabotage innovation, or otherwise have malicious intent towards it. On the contrary, ask around in organizations, and every single person you talk to will say pretty much the same thing – innovation is very important and they try to support it at every single turn. And the truth is, people are earnest when they say this. Most everyone of us believes in innovation, and believe that we are, in our own way, doing our bit for it.
Still, most organizations struggle with innovation. The consensus about its importance doesn't help, nor does the amount of resources directed towards it. When people become aware of this, they then start finding things to blame. We blame leaders for not demanding more, we blame the organization for not dedicating enough resources, and we blame “a fear of failure”. We blame people for being unambitious, and leaders for not supporting us. We, generally, play the blame game.
But the blame game contains an implicit assumption that there would be some kind of malice involved. It implies that someone, somewhere is withholding resources, or fears failure, or keeps expectations low. And while this might be a natural supposition, it doesn’t mean that it’s correct. In fact, Hanlon’s razor would say that it might just as well be a question of… well, if not stupidity, then at least errors in thinking. More to the point, blaming the wrong thing and missing out on a far more problematic truth.
It is with this in mind I suggest you consider the following errors in innovation thinking, when considering your organization’s struggle with the same. They are errors I’ve come across in numerous organizations, big and small, and they represent the kind of skewed thinking about innovation that whilst not malicious in any way can still do major damage. Without further ado, the three errors, followed by an analysis of each:
- Thinking that unrealistic expectations won’t hurt innovation.
- Thinking it’s a lack of resources, when it’s really about resource mismatch.
- Blaming a fear of failure, when the real problem is the fear of success.
When high expectations lead to low innovation
We’re taught that innovation thinking should be all about thinking big. Whether it’s “moonshots”, “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”, “10x thinking”, or simply “thinking big”, we’re constantly being told that in order to innovate, expectations should be put high, then higher still.
What is discussed less often is just how difficult this is, and what happens when the organization and its culture isn’t ready for it. Yes, if you have a culture that has worked its way up to doing moonshots, and which has support in place for it, this can be good advice. However, when expectations go from being “audacious” to being unrealistic or just impossible, the opposite is true.
Leaders who do not understand the subtler elements of innovation cultures often miss out on this, imagining that a culture can be built merely on raising expectations over and over again. What they fail to see is that when expectations are raised without a simultaneous strengthening of support, you are in fact creating innovation stress. This can take many forms, such as defeatism, but at heart it means that the organization stops believing that management is serious when asking it to innovate, as it has only emphasized what they want, not how it might be achieved.
What this can lead to, over time, is that people in the organization no longer see innovation, when mentioned by leaders, as something meaningful. Instead, they hear concepts such as “10x thinking”, and considers them mere buzzwords, without any real meaning. As management doubles down by raising expectations ever higher, the malaise worsens. A negative spiral has been created, and high expectations result in low, or no, innovation.
So do not blame lack of “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”, for introducing them without a proper support system can be more damaging than simply sticking to the expectations the organization has today.
It’s not the lack of resources, it’s their mismatch
When talking about support for innovations, the number one thing that people in organizations tend to blame is the lack of resources. This too is a natural reaction, as we all dream of what we might accomplish had we just a little more time, a little more money, and a slightly bigger and better network. What people tend to forget is that from an organizational perspective, this doesn’t need to be remotely true.
Whilst we rarely address this, innovation doesn’t always need or even respond well to additional resources. Also, most organizations already have ample resources for innovation and change. What is missing, then, is not resources in general, but the right resources in the right places at the right time.
Managers who come face to face with employees blaming dwindling innovation on a lack of resources often react by trying to scrape together some, but just as often end up throwing good money after bad. This, as e.g. money in and of itself does precious little for innovation. It can do more only when it is matched to a real problem, connected to a true innovation need.
Yet organizations often look only to the total sum of resources they believe they’ve dedicated to innovation, rather than to the bigger, more complicated picture. What I’ve seen in companies has often been that resources are dedicated without any real understanding of how they match with the problem at hand, or, for that matter, with other resources dedicated to the issue.
Thus you can in a modern corporation come across innovation projects with lots of people engaged with them, but without the financial resources to truly test anything, as well as ones with huge budgets, but without the allotted personnel or time to use this in an intelligent fashion. In organizations lacking metrics and operational oversight, I’ve seen hugely challenging problems getting minuscule support, and incremental developments getting both all the resources and all the attention.
Further to this, companies sometimes even lack proper metrics for understanding their general resource matching. More often than I’d care to remember I’ve sat with top management bemoaning their lack of resources for innovation, yet unable to state whether they couldn’t achieve a higher rate of return by re-channeling their current spend on things such as marketing or even operations.
To blame a lack of resources is thus an error in at least two ways. One, you can’t blame a lack of resources before you’ve been able to clearly say what you’d need them for and show how additional resources would support the ones you already have. Two, organizations always already have resources, but are too often so wedded to their legacy spend that they’re unwilling to refocus and redistribute. That’s not lacking resources, just like not finding time for exercise often means we’d rather spend it watching Netflix…
Fear of success can be a bigger problem than fear of failure
The last of our three addresses culture directly, and blames the inability to innovate on people’s innate fear of failure. Again, this seems like common sense, as we’ve been told that risk-aversion is bad and a culture where failure isn’t punished is good. What this truism hides, however, is that in an organization, the fear of success can well be a far bigger problem.
Fear of failure addresses us as individuals, particularly the way in which we would like to be seen as competent and successful. As innovation always contains the potential for failure (or, more to the point, fails far more often than it succeeds), it stands to reason that there is a part of us that will fear innovation, simply because it might make us look foolish.
In an organizational setting, however, this effect is both offset by the possibility to spread the risk, and overshadowed by the political implications of the fear of success. For a person or persons embedded into an organizational hierarchy, innovation success can mean many things. It can mean positive things such as bonuses and the likes, but it can also mean a fundamental shifting of power bases. With each new successful innovation, old competences become less valuable, new networks start pushing out old, nurtured ones, and established positions in a hierarchy become less secure.
The kicker is that if the fear that tempers innovation in a company is mis-diagnosed, this can make the situation worse rather than better. The fear of failure can be offset by making sure that projects are allowed to fail and people are allowed to take greater risks. This in turn can support a fear of success, as the attendant increase of failures will support the story that it is the existing framework that truly works and shouldn’t be questioned.
Fear of success can subconsciously make people less likely to try out workable ideas, and instead focus on flights of fancy, and further fear of success can skew projects and resources away from the core parts of the organization, the ones most in need of challenge and questioning.
So, blame fear of failure if you’re sure that is the only thing that ails the organization. But remember, blaming one thing can be a smokescreen for not blaming another, and sometimes success can be far more disruptive than failure can.
Changing the Innovation Blame Game
The point of this little text is in fact rather simple. Leaders should of course listen to the way in which people talk about innovation and the challenges with the same, but at the same time be aware of how the blame game works. Calling out a lack of resources can be a correct analysis, but it can also be way to ignore how resources need to be balanced and matched. Expectations should be set and communicated, but they need to be realistic – you can’t blame a sausage factory for not having disrupted oncological treatments. And fears may well control an organization, but you need to understand which fears do, and which just get blamed.
So what is an innovation leader to do? In short, to realize that the blame game can go both ways. It can highlight, and it can hide away. It can represent a genuine complaint, and an erroneous one. A leader must be able to parse and interpret such innovation gripes, and find the truth behind them. This can be done by looking to the data, by improving the metrics used, or simply by asking people to argue for their complaints.
What is not enough is to take the innovation blame game at face value, or even worse, start playing it yourself. Leaders have a responsibility not to let mistaken ideas flourish in the organization, to call out errors when they see them, and to combat stupidity – even when it isn’t the least bit malicious. It’s not always the nicest thing to be doing, but it’s one of the most important, if innovation is to succeed.