To be fully free to create, we must first find the courage and willingness to let go:
Let go of the strategies that have worked for us in the past…
Let go of our biases, the foundation of our illusions…
Let go of our grievances, the root source of our victimhood…
Let go of our so-often-denied fear of being found unlovable.
― Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace
Corporations like to believe they have an innovative culture, though they rarely do.
In the first part of this short series, I talked about the dilution of ideas— seeds for innovation—and how this is often an inescapable outcome of how big companies are structured.
Today, in the spirit of all that is unholy-yet-enlightening, I’d like to show you how to hasten the death of innovation at your company. Perhaps armed with this perspective you can begin to seek a cure— or at least recognize the symptoms that your company’s culture is building a mediocrity machine.
Step 1. Reward success, punish failure.
In a recently leaked PDF from the New York Times, this little gem showed up:
“Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at The Times. We must reward people who show initiative, even when their experiments fail.”
To get something wonderful in this world takes the work of many, plus an unusual amount of luck (“luck” meaning, the right idea for the right audience at the right time).
But that trifecta is often out of our hands, and even good ideas fail more often than not. When organizations focus only on those failures, they condemn the entire processes. There is usually no one trumpeting the good that came with it. There’s just blame.
But when an idea succeeds, many are ready to take credit and a revisionist history begins that masks the countless bumps and detours along the way. It also overlooks those passionate few who were willing to risk for the idea in the first place.
Remember: Organizations need to reward the process and the people brave enough to embark on it. Only then can these hidden gems surface.
2. Micro-manage innovation.
Teresa Amabile of HBR said it best:
“The associations made between creativity and artistic originality often lead to confusion about the appropriate place of creativity in business organizations.”
Innovation requires creativity, and creativity thrives in ways that can be unknown or uncomfortable to managers. In a word, creativity is often thought of as “artsy.” It’s soft, difficult to define and hard to measure—and ripe for adult supervision.
Creatives often need hours and hours to sketch, experiment, delete and begin again. Executives are understandably impatient— in part because the creative process doesn’t follow well-laid plans or schedules. As a result, unrealistic or uninformed demands are put on the creative process—all in the hopes of soothing that impatience.
Creative thinking happens when you connect the dots—combining ideas that others haven’t connected before. But you can’t do that until you have first collected lots (and lots) of dots.
This is why micro-management is so detrimental. It interrupts or prevents this important process from happening at its most fundamental level.
Remember: By definition, creativity and innovation are not business-as-usual activities—why should you treat them as if they are?
3. Tie creativity directly to outcomes.
You will get outcomes from the creative process, but they might not be what you are expecting.
You need outcomes from creativity; that’s undeniable. But you can’t assign volume or weight to an idea. Tying creativity to outcomes is an exercise in futility that will give you several small, almost impotent products rather than big-scale output.
For example, in 1962 Andy Warhol painted 32 canvases of mundane soup cans and sold them for $100. Years later, those paintings were sold for $15,000,000. Who could have known? Certainly not Andy, or he wouldn’t have sold them for a mere $100. You can’t assign value to that from the outset, but they ended becoming near priceless.
That value is often hard to see at the beginning—or even after a lot of effort has been spent. But the world economy is full of ideas that were allowed to endure, and the organizations that supported these ideas are sitting on top of the dog pile.
So you need the juice that only a good idea can provide. Because while there are few ways to get something right, there are countless ways to get it wrong, and you will need to explore both. The odds are not in an idea’s favor, and progressing from an idea to the final output will require a lot of work, and lots of frustration.
But when you do finally push through, you create something that could be near priceless—or at least worth a mountain of cash.