To Become More Innovative: A Mindset Shift is Required
A Perspective Piece on BPI Report: “Innovation: The New Competitive Equation”
I have always been driven by the desire to understand which I guess makes me one of the somewhat annoying people who keep asking ‘why’. This is also why I have, since 1992, focused all my energy and activities on addressing questions such as:
- Why is it that some organizations are more innovative than others?
- What are the areas where they do things differently?
- Why is it that despite having talked about the desire to become more innovative, it remains a yet to be realized ambition for so many organizations?
- Is it true that we do resist change and that we only change when we have a burning platform or stand with our back against the wall? On my journey to find answers to these and similar questions I have discovered that the paths into neuroscience and complexity theory offer richer insights than looking at processes and structures. Looking at the BPI report I read the core message: if we truly want to become more innovative, as individuals, as organizations, as nations, we need a mindset change. I could not agree more. It sounds quite straight forward, doesn’t it? Just get a new mindset like we would get a new car or a new coat. Yet it is not. Our mindset, our value and belief systems are shaped from birth, through our upbringing, our experiences, our education. They become the default system on which we draw when acting, reacting, feeling, thinking. Have you ever made a New Years resolutions? This is a question I frequently ask my audiences and most will raise their hand. It seems that the beginning of a new year inspires us to improve ourselves – as this is generally what new years resolutions are about. If I then ask the same audience whether they are still doing it, most hands stay down. It seems that many of us have given up, frustrated by the fact that even if we, ourselves, willingly want to change it is not easy. This is probably also a point for me to mention a couple of other things that will help to understand where I am coming from when it comes to innovation.: Firstly, I firmly believe that innovation is a means to and end not the end in itself, something which in our constant striving for more innovation seems to have got lost. Secondly, in my experience innovation happens in the presence of certain values and behaviors, or in other words, innovation happens in the presence of a certain mindset.
Given that most organizations do currently not perceive themselves to be (sufficiently) innovative, I can only conclude and confirm: a shift in mindset is required if we are to become more innovative.
Perhaps if we can pinpoint aspects of the current mindset that make innovation and innovating somewhat difficult, we can offer a starting point for organizations and educational institutions to create conditions that are more conducive. I am one for prevention rather than focusing on finding cures, meaning that I would place at least as much emphasis on the education of our children as I would on individuals in organizations. Why? If we would stop educating creativity, an open mind, experimentation and the ceaseless asking of ‘why’ out of our children in the first place we would not struggle so much with getting it back into them once they are grown up.
To me there is a strong link between the currently dominant approach to education and our struggles with change and innovation. We seem to have an education system that conveys a world view where there is but one right answer. Unless we get that one right answer we fail, we feel stupid, we might be laughed at. It might well be that when we are starting journey and learn reading, writing and maths there truly is often only one right answer, for example, not much arguing with the fact that six times six is 36. How to spell a word seems to be the same – though those familiar with American and British English know that from a spelling perspective there can be more than one right way, depending on the context and time; many words today are spelled differently from how they were spelled 100 years ago. A right and wrong mentality is ingrained in us very early on – also when we learn what the ‘proper’ use of things is. The deeply embedded search for the ‘one right answer’ causes a lot of grief for innovation and those being asked to change. If there is indeed one right way, and someone suggests a change, does not mean that I must have been wrong all along? How many of us become defensive when someone suggests to change how we do things or just asks us why we do them the way we do?
In order to address that challenge we should rather nurture a mindset that centers around the belief that there is only ever a most appropriate way, given the specific context and time. The context in which we are living in is changing faster than ever before; what works well for us today might be outdated and hinder us tomorrow. We therefore need to constantly observe, experiment and take risks to notice the change, understand it, and identify the opportunity (or threat) it brings for us. The pace of change also means that at the point when we need to make a decision, not all information will be available to us, that too will only emerge as part of the journey.
It is a system where we memorize for the short term rather than learn for the long term and to be able to transfer our learning into different contexts. We know that innovation happens through the connection of previously unconnected bodies of knowledge – there is little that is truly and 100% new.
Those who have managed to keep an open, questioning mindset alive are the ones the report refers to as ‘risk takers and innovators’ who struggle to find true appreciation in the organizations they work for. I would also count those into this category who, as requested by their organization, have investigated what it means to be innovative. More often than not they will have come to the conclusion that behavioral and mindset changes – particularly at top levels – are required. Not something that many at the top like to hear. As a consequence, those who were at the heart of the innovation movement in organizations are much more likely to have moved out of the organization than up within it. These people are most likely consultants or are doing something entirely different, instead of pursuing the innovation path in a different organization. Seeing what needs to be done and not being able to do it is one of the most frustrating things in life, and the experience of running against brick walls just gets too painful after a while.
But enough complaining, what insights might help us move forward?
I am a firm believer in the following Confucian saying: “If I hear I forget, if I see I remember, if I do I understand.” We are not achieving change by telling people that they need to change. As individuals we tend to change things because we understand the necessity and the benefits (though even then it is not all plain sailing!). As I always like to say, we do not resist change, we resist being changed. Understanding the need to change, at the personal, individual level, is in my view a prerequisite for truly embracing change. And nothing better for true understanding than through experiencing. We need for something to deeply resonate with us, otherwise it is all too easy to accept the need for change – for the others, not for ourselves.
While necessary to prepare the ground, a change in mindset does not yet lead to innovation. Again I so agree with the report, which states the need for developing a clear innovation strategy. Asking for innovation without providing some direction and boundaries, i.e. where not to innovate, what kind and level of innovation is required, only leads to confusion and frustration. It also leads to wasting a lot of resources, including goodwill and enthusiasm that an initial call for innovation generally generates.
In my view the best way to get people to innovate is to provide them with an inspiring vision, and then give them the resources and space, together with some direction, to bring that vision to life. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of ‘The little prince’ advises, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood, don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
So, if you want to create an organization where innovation thrives, give people an inspiring vision and provide a supportive context and they will innovate – without you ever needing to mention the often confusion and overused word. If you are really daring you will even allow the people to be part of the creation process – and don’t forget, to consult and involve does not mean that you are creating a consensus decision!