Make innovation a discipline

Innovation is about small shifts, not huge transformations.

There are lots of reasons why companies find it so hard to stay ahead of the innovation curve: Legacy thinking, insufficient allocation of time and resources, siloed cultures. But the biggest barrier to innovation is the belief that it somehow can only be practiced by a select few (the in-house “geniuses” and “visionaries”) under specific conditions (formal, scheduled brainstorms) and must produce sweeping, sensational change (“big bangs”). This belief not only reinforces unhelpful assumptions about where big ideas come from, but strips organizations of their innovative edge.

Let’s set the record straight:

  • Innovation is a discipline, not a talent
  • Innovation can be practiced by anyone, not just a few
  • Innovation is driven by choice, not chance

Simply put, the flow of innovation looks more like a slow drip than a sudden burst. We’re much more likely to make smaller, simpler discoveries that lay the groundwork for big ideas than we are to uncover sudden, seismic breakthroughs that smash the status quo. As Scott Anthony, senior partner at Innosight told me on a recent episode of I Wish They Knew, innovation is a systematic, sustainable process that makes an impact — informing the way we think about it, plan for it, and foster it within our organizations.

Here are three ways to think small so you can go big:

Identify a specific behavior

We can’t navigate towards something new unless we know what it is. Start by identifying the behavioral target you want to achieve — let’s say it’s how your team or organization approaches its work. What are the most important traits that underscore that outlook? Agile. Customer-obsessed. Data-driven. Learning-oriented. From there, deconstruct the specific behaviors and beliefs that give the concept shape. For an organization that wants to develop a stronger orientation for learning, this might be framed as: “We fail fast, we fail forward, and we learn even faster.” Those are trackable behaviors that provide the guard rails for innovation.

Clear away barriers

Once a target is confirmed, clear away any barriers that may disrupt the process of innovation. For an organization trying to innovate around a high learning orientation, this means confronting important but difficult questions such as:

  • Do people feel like they can be candid with one another?
  • Do ideas get silenced by those with more seniority or status?
  • When ideas conflict, how are they resolved?
  • Do people have sufficient time and resources to start investing their creative energies?

Unless we proactively eliminate the barriers to innovation, we’re probably going to remain stuck in the status quo. 

Set conditions for commitment

The last step is to establish conditions that lead to meaningful adoption. At Innosight, Scott Anthony and his colleagues nurture innovation with a process they call BEANs, which stands for behavioral enabler, artifact, and nudge. To set the innovation process in motion, start with a behavioral enabler that address both the conscious and subconscious parts of the brain through a combination of direct and indirect prompts. These are usually tools or processes that make it easier for people to do something different.

From there, introduce an artifact, things people can see and touch. These artifacts support and showcase the desired behavior — anything from a digital collection of ideas to a physical display of prototypes. And finally, apply nudges to promote change through indirect suggestion and reinforcement. By keeping ideas top-of-mind and retaining focus through consistent reminders, innovation has a knock-on effect: The more you see it, the more you become it.

This is how innovation grows: Set a target. Identify the behaviors. Eliminate the barriers. Plant that BEAN, with the right mix of enablers and nudges, and you’ll find that innovation can begin to flourish. We’re all designed to be creative, to imagine and wonder. Small-scale innovation can unleash large-scale shifts in the way we think about and execute big ideas. With that kind of discipline, your next big breakthrough might just be ready to emerge.

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