The Irony of Innovation

There is a famous scene in a classic 1975 Soviet movie called The Irony of Fate. In the opening scene, animation is used to show how an architect's sketch of an elaborate apartment building is reduced, through the bureaucratic process, from a beautiful structure to the quintessentially Soviet "dom"—an unadorned and soulless building that is virtually indistinguishable from its neighbors. This not-so-subtle jab at the Soviet authorities poked fun at how bureaucracy can stifle innovation, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Not to kick bureaucracy while it's down, but bureaucracy and innovation can have a sometimes-uneasy relationship. Bureaucracy can unwittingly deprive innovation of the resources it needs to thrive. So what can be done to ensure innovation is allowed to flourish in our work organizations?

Innovation: Novelty at the Edges

One way of defining innovation is novelty at the edges. In other words, innovation is often about introducing new elements to things that already exist, but doing it just where the light meets the dark. Take a car. There are millions of places to make small additions and improvements to the basic elements of the technology that makes up a car. Occasionally, revolutionary changes take place, such as the creation of reasonably priced mass-market electric cars (thank you, Mr. Musk), but most improvements are likelier to be in the realm of improving gas mileage of the internal combustion engine. So why does this matter? There are at least two reasons.

The first reason is that paradigm shifts and revolutionary changes are rare, and thank goodness. Most of us have a hard enough time keeping up with incremental changes, let alone daily, weekly, or monthly revolutions in technology. This should, therefore frame how we value incrementalism in the arena of innovation.

The second reason why appreciating novelty at the edges is important is the phenomenon of missing the mark. Many of us have been indoctrinated from a young age to believe that we must "shoot for the stars." This frame of mind can actually have some unexpectedly counterproductive outcomes by favoring expensive reinvention over cheaper refinement, thus leaving products and projects in a perpetual state of immaturity.

The fact is that almost none of us are capable of knowing and doing everything required to make a product or project the best it can be. By creating a much larger space for individuals to participate in the process of refinement, we also take fuller advantage of the innovative power of a workforce. The more people there are plugged into the engine of innovation, the more and better ideas will be generated. There is a time and a place for the brand new. But the time and place for refinement is much larger.

Challenging Truisms

So, back to the original question: What can be done to ensure innovation is allowed to flourish in our places of work? The answer is actually grounded in our brain's hardwiring, and requires a change in how we sometimes approach innovation.

At the outset of many projects, we feel a compulsion to be efficient. This drive for efficiency causes us to scope, by asking questions in advance about what the outcomes of work should be, what successful outcomes will look like, and what can be done to avoid waste by ensuring outcomes are unique. Asking these questions leads to neurological tunnel vision through subconscious relational thinking. This type of relational thinking isn't surprising. However, what is surprising is the way this type of relational thinking can actually stifle innovation by preventing novel thoughts from taking place. So, if the way innovation is going to take place and how we define a successful outcome are overly defined in advance, the brain essentially gets hijacked into relational thinking, making it sometimes impossible to see beyond what's been predefined.

So what can be done to mitigate against this tunnel vision? First, resist defining how. Resist defining success. And be tolerant of ideas that appear, on their face, to be duplicative. I can just imagine some of you reading this thinking to yourselves "But you've got to plan! If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!" Yes, planning is important...sometimes. Planning is important to lay a foundation for relational thinking. To use the example I cited in the opening paragraph of this article, planning isn't as important for the architect who designed the building as it is for the people who will be building it. In this example, the architect's mind must be free in order to be innovative by being novel at the edges. The builders, on the other hand, will need prescribed and detailed plans in order to ensure their building is structurally sound and completed on schedule.

Duplication of Effort

"But what about duplication? We shouldn't be wasteful." Yes, about duplication. When lots of people dwell in the same innovative space, there's bound to be duplication, or at least something that looks like duplication. In reality, very little of what happens in the innovation space is actually duplication. It is highly unlikely that two or more people will have the exact same idea and execute it in the exact same way. People may have similar ideas, and they may even execute them in similar ways. However, the great thing about allowing innovative incrementalism to occur is that a surplus of ideas will be generated to solve a problem or improve upon something, and the best solution will usually win out, if it's allowed to. However, this requires that many ideas be generated. Many ideas being generated to solve the same problem is not duplication—it’s a wise use of collective mental resources.

And to those who still think this is wasteful, isn't it more wasteful to accept a mediocre solution to a problem due to a dearth of options, only to have to come back later to fix it? Generating lots of ideas up front, knowing that most won't materialize, is much cheaper than limiting the innovation space under the guise of efficiency, thus back-loading the costs by having to deal with the consequences of ineffective solutions after the fact. Front-loading the cost by allowing for a rich, and sometimes duplicative, innovation space is almost always the cheaper option.

Conclusion

The best way to ensure that novelty occurs is to allow for flexibility and ambiguity, in order to give our brains the best chance of coming up with mostly incremental additions and improvements in large numbers to existing ideas by avoiding mental tunnel vision. Paradoxical though it may seem, resisting traditional truisms about planning, waste, and success gives innovation the oxygen it needs to flourish.