I tried to be innovative, but I got stuck in meetings all day. I tried to think creatively, but I had to catch up on email.Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You’re called to a meeting with other creative colleagues. Perhaps it’s a cross-functional, matrixed, or agile team to “scrum” toward innovative ideas around key issues facing the future of the organization. Perhaps it’s driven by the need to update or upgrade new product roadmaps, modernize customer experiences and their respective journeys, compete through service innovation, or digitally transform the organization through disruptive technologies. However noble or even critical the intention and need, the reality of the situation is that a majority of promising ideas are instantly disregarded, never actually considered.There are always reasons (or excuses) why ideas are shut down.“But that other innovative company is not in the same market as us…”“Things just don’t work that way…”“But we are doing very well and are on track to…”“We already have too much to do…”“We have to focus our investments…”“Our partners or customers aren’t asking for it…”“We don’t have the processes, expertise to do this…”“Where’s the ROI…”“We can’t cannibalize our current business models…”Drafting momentum and building upon the past to scale and grow in the future is only one of the pillars of success. Innovation, which can be defined as the pursuit and the creation of new value, is another pillar which creates new momentum and fortifies business models through resilience and relevance.But if innovation is the key to future-proofing and more effectively competing for the future, why is it that many organizations get caught up in a pattern of incrementalism?It comes down to organizational culture—and what it fosters and rewards vs. what it limits, stagnates, and censures. This can lull teams into complacency and even fool them into thinking they’re actually innovating when in fact they’re iterating, making strides based on past performance, rather than cultivating new opportunities. The differences between iteration and innovation are key to the survival and promise of every company. You need a balance of both.Iteration is aiming to endeavor in new efforts that essentially scale or make the same things better.Innovation is doing new things that deliver new value and/or inspire new behaviors and standards.Disruption results when new value supersedes previous value, making old services obsolete.
It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing. It’s that they don’t really have the permission to “break the rules.” They’re held to the norms of the organizational culture, which encourages “brainstorming in a box,” where taking risks is out of bounds, cognitive biases serve as a guardrail, and hierarchy favors the tenured. But at best, these factors favor incrementalism and thus, can never really lead to true innovation, only iteration.
Hierarchies, HR and work systems and processes—and, ultimately, cultures that inherently limit creativity—are by design only capable of producing ideas that are restricted or compromised out of the gate. When leadership confines strategic thinking by holding it to past standards of excellence, ideas and the ecosystem that makes or breaks those ideas tend to follow suit. There’s no natural ability to think outside of the proverbial box because the norms, rules, aspirations, risks, and rewards haven’t changed. No matter how trendy or inventive ideas may seem, they are, by default, limited in originality and creativity because they’re building upon a legacy foundation, not reimagining possibilities through a new lens, free from fear, biases, or restraints.Brainstorming, design thinking, Blue Ocean, whatever the process, no matter how effective they can be, too often lead to results impaired from the onset. They become a byproduct of the “box” that they’re trying to break out of.Without changing the standards, without normalizing and empowering risk-taking and incentivizing curiosity and creativity, we cannot open new doors. Without giving ourselves or those around us the permission or freedom to move in bold, new directions, the designated sandbox for innovation does nothing to reshape or re-imagine an uncharted future. Instead, the schematics and the cultural dynamics of the box directly shape the results produced within it. They become the box—and we never left, even though we convinced ourselves we were thinking outside of it.This is the result of leadership-induced “groupthink.” It fosters corporate citizens to operate (cower) to the known knowns as guidance, guardrails, and governance. As such, they are not incentivized to challenge their own status quo or unlock a fresh or unique perspective to deliver a personal and original approach that explores and surfaces new value. Instead, it places a great deal of pressure on organizations to grow based on current trajectories.
There’s an old saying that ideas are a dime a dozen. This refers to the notion that everyone has ideas and that it’s difficult to discover something powerful, meaningful, or original to add new value. For those seeking alternative directions for the future, this may very well be the case. But for those who choose not to see new possibilities or hold those back who do, I believe the saying should instead read, “ideas are denied by the dozen.”The truth is that ideas rarely earn executive or mainstream support without encountering significant headwinds and turbulence at almost every level. This means that many promising ideas fail to break through because the resistance is just too great. It also means that the acts of ideating and the hopes of making an impact are not cultivated or celebrated. What’s worse is the anticipation of futility discourages participation and convinces people to give up before the potential of their thoughts can be explored. Not trying or quitting is a certain path to defeat or failure. Whereas trying and failing and trying again is the quintessential source of progress.It’s simply a matter of innovate or be out-innovated. Disrupt or be disrupted.Disruption isn’t just a gift given to you by disruptors, or a curse imposed on you by competitors. It can also be self-inflicted and often is. Stagnation and incrementalism can lead to mediocrity, which only accelerates irrelevance and eventual disruption. When your most valuable customers and employees feel, see, taste, touch, or experience innovation and new value, chances are, they’re not going to go backward. They’re going to choose a new value and meaningful experiences no matter how much momentum you’ve built over the years.
I’ll give most people the benefit of the doubt. Many times they don’t realize that they’re saboteurs to creativity and innovation. But, you have to ask yourself what it is you stand for, and what it is you stand against.When it comes to ideation, collaboration, and inspiration, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. It’s not just those who do not pursue their ideas that affect progress. It’s also those who don’t recognize the promise in others or emergent trends that are gathering momentum outside their lane or market. These scouts and soothsayers are instrumental in identifying threats and opportunities to help companies of all sizes and in all industries, prepare, react, and innovate to compete or disrupt moving forward. But like budding innovators and entrepreneurs, they too are often underappreciated in or by organizations that overly focus on scale, momentum, and optimizing the status quo. Thus fear, self-doubt, and lack of support prematurely silence or quash the very dreams of the dreamers who can help stave off disruption and create new opportunities.Innovation needs its dreamers.To survive disruption, to deliver new value, and to compete for the future, legacy organizations and incumbents need their dreamers, too.I don’t believe anyone is here because they absolutely believe there is nothing left to learn or no new ways to add value to someone else.What will you do differently from this point on? Brian Solis is a world-renowned digital analyst, anthropologist, and futurist. Brian is also a global keynote speaker and author of eight best-selling books. Through his research, Brian humanizes emergent trends and technology’s effects to help shape the future we want to live in. His current research explores digital transformation, innovation, experience design, culture 2.0, and the future of industries, trends, and behavior. Additionally, Brian studies the human side of what he calls “digital Darwinism,” to understand individuals, their behaviors, norms, and values, and their evolving emotions, mindsets, and rationale.