Monday, November 11, 2013

Discomfort is the key to innovation

For years now we've been told that innovation is strange and unusual, but promises great possibilities and potential returns.  We've been regaled with stories about noted innovators, individuals and corporations, who demonstrate how to innovate.   Individuals like Steve Jobs, corporations like 3M and P&G. These stories are meant to reduce the fear and uncertainty associated with innovation, and demonstrate success.  Through training, exercises, cultural shifts and many other activities, we're meant to see that innovation is simple, friendly, engaging.  We've spent massive amounts of money and time trying to get people to see that innovation isn't difficult, isn't threatening.  At this rate the Teletubbies will be offering innovation training courses.  Of course, anywhere there's a "Dummies Guide" you know the content has been simplified to bring more people aboard.

I'll admit I've been guilty of advocating for simpler, more straightforward innovation.  I thought through training and cultural change we could reduce uncertainty and resistance to innovation tools and techniques.  In some cases and places, we've been successful, but there's something to be learned in the lasting resistance to innovation on the whole.  No matter how much you dress up the wolf in the sheep's clothing, no matter how the lion tamer demonstrates the lion is tamed, many people are simply not going to accept that the level of risk and uncertainty around innovation has been eliminated.  We've trained an entire generation of people to perform at levels of efficiency that are unparalleled in the history of civilization.  And in doing so we've robbed them of their ability to think, and dream up new or unusual solutions that would violate existing business as usual tenets.  No where are any group of people more likely to reject good ideas than in settings where business teams try to subvert their own existing methods and processes.  For too long we've tried to reduce fear and uncertainty around innovation.  It's time we learned something from the continued resistance.  Let's take a new tack.

Discomfort is the key

While working to reduce the fear and uncertainty associated with innovation is important, it's not enough.  Far too long we've worked to make innovation safer, more repeatable and more acceptable.  Those criteria are important, as is transparency, repeatability and continuity.  But we need to recognize a key point:
people aren't going to innovate simply because we make it easier or friendlier or less risky to do so

We can't conceive of a point where enough people will be comfortable enough with innovation to do it constantly without provocation, except in situations where the condition already exists, such as in entrepreneurial firms or the few firms we hold up as innovation stalwarts.  Rather, we have everything in reverse.

What we should be doing instead of creating more comfort about innovation is creating discomfort about the status quo.  Nothing generates more energy and enthusiasm for change and new products and services than an impending corporate strategic change, an external threat or a profound market shift.  These have the ability to create true discomfort with the status quo.  And when the status quo is uncertain, that's the time when innovation can become very appealing.  We may not be able to eliminate the complexity or fear of innovation to engage more regular innovation, but we can certainly create discomfort with the status quo to drive more opportunities for innovation.

The reason that discomfort is so important is that as humans we are creatures of comfort.  If we can repeat the same tasks and avoid threats, and avoid having to work harder to learn new methods or techniques, we are perfectly happy to remain in the same methods and processes, creating the same products and services.  This is a "comfort" zone, and it will take a lot to make us leave.  No matter how much we sugar-coat innovation and make people more aware of the tools and possibilities, innovation is more risky and requires more work for less certain outcome than returning to the status quo.

Why wait?

The problem many businesses face is that the status quo is too comfortable and too profitable to change, so the only discomfort that's important comes from external agents or activities.  Competitors introduce a new product, a new entrant siphons off customers, a government entity creates new regulations that close off a market opportunity.  Then the status quo is threatened, and innovation becomes an uncomfortable but viable option.  Innovation, however, is a far better tool when used in a proactive setting than in a reactive mode.  If all you need is to "catch up" to average market expectations set by a new product or service, you don't need innovation, and the tools and techniques aren't well structured to play catch up anyway.

But why wait?  The best innovators know they need to cannibalize themselves before someone else does.  This means good managers must create discomfort about the existing products and markets before they are disrupted by someone else.  While you need good innovation methods and training, you'll never approach a point where everyone is "comfortable" with innovation.  What you need is to create more discomfort with the status quo than there is discomfort with innovation, and then provide the leadership, tools and methods to sustain innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:58 AM


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