How to help managers unlock innovation

To overcome the barriers to new ideas, team leaders must create time, be more human and build risk-free cultures of experimentation, says Elvin Turner

Surviving Covid has thrust innovation back to the top of the boardroom agenda. Yet 94 per cent of leaders are dissatisfied with the results of their organisations’ innovation efforts. What’s going on? Ask any group of managers and three reasons typically loom large: lack of time, a dearth of originality and a culture of risk aversion. 

And no wonder. We typically calibrate our organisations for predictable repeatability. Anything out of the ordinary is usually snuffed out before it gets anywhere near valuable operational resources.

So how do managers overcome the ‘big three’ innovation blockers and increase their teams’ performance? Let’s start with time.

Managers as timelords

Time is usually innovation’s biggest killer. Most people feel over committed to the day job, meaning innovation projects typically happen once the kids are asleep. For a team that genuinely wants higher innovation performance, creating the right capacity has to come first. 

Working back from an achievable target is a good starting point. For example, perhaps a team wants to dedicate 10 per cent of its working week to innovation. A manager should start by asking their team: ‘What would need to be true for us to create that time?’ 

But this won’t be purely just about time. It’ll also spark conversations about capabilities, culture, leadership, process, structure and resources. But time is critical. So with the outcome in mind, they should then ask: ‘What would we need to do more of, to do less of, to stop and to start for us to create that 10 per cent?’ There will be no shortage of ideas in workshops like this. In my experience this is the conversation most employees have been waiting for for a long time.

My advice is to start small. Global insurer Allianz started by giving employees 30 minutes a week to pursue new ideas. As quick wins build confidence, teams can flex their innovation time according to the outcome.

Be more human

Few leaders complain to me about the number of ideas in the system. Their real concern is the lack of truly original ideas that could deliver deeper, more profitable sources of competitive advantage. But where to start? The answer: be more human. Get serious about how creativity really works with human beings and amplify it. 

Let’s start with the tricky issue of giving birth to bolder ideas. We love to tell people to think outside the box. The trouble is the subtly stultifying effect of the status quo means often we can’t even see the box that we’re trying to escape from. What we do today often stops us seeing what’s needed for tomorrow. 

Teaching managers to design what I call ‘catalytic questions’ is extremely helpful here. These are questions that align a strategic outcome with a disruptive focus. And they burst the invisible status quo bubble that dulls our imaginations. For example, I once worked with a large music label in search of new markets. Instead of asking: ‘How could we make money from people who don’t currently listen to music?’ we went deeper and asked: ‘How could we help the 300 million deaf people in the world enjoy music for the first time?’ Impossible, right? Well, that focused, aligned question sparked breakthrough ideas that led to partnerships with medical start-ups working in the aural space. Something that team would never have otherwise done.

Also, during the conception stage, give more space to the magic of ‘incubation’. Evidence abounds that our best ideas happen when we stop thinking about them. So try ‘five-day brainstorms’. Have a brainstorm on Monday, shortlist some promising ideas, forget about them, and then reconvene on Friday. Ideas will subconsciously brew, fizz, connect and morph during the week. Friday always comes with better ideas, but also with reflections as to why some of Monday’s lightbulbs should be unscrewed fast. Slow down to amp up. Again: be more human.

Lower the stakes

Having a bold idea is all very well. But risk aversion means taking the first few steps is painful. Not surprising when even Google admits that 99 per cent of its bold ideas turn out to be duds.

The answer? Lower the stakes. Strip out the risk from the first steps of exploration and learn whether the idea is likely to work before investing significantly. How? Create a culture of experimentation where the mantra is: ‘Dream big, start small, learn fast.’ Take your bold idea, identify its ‘leap of faith’ assumptions – those that would cause the idea to fail if they turned out to be wrong – and then run tiny experiments to test those assumptions. This is low-risk, pay-as-you-go innovation. We only invest more resources in an idea if the experiment findings say so. Such low stakes mean everyone feels much safer taking the first step.

Pernod Ricard UK transformed its innovation performance with a culture of experimentation. Ultimately, Denis O’ Flynn, managing director at the time, said to his workforce: “Don’t bring me ideas, bring me experiments!” Data from experiments, rather than gut feel, was a much safer basis for making investment decisions.

Teaching teams how to design experiments turns out to be a game changer for organisations wanting bolder innovation.

Elvin Turner is an innovation coach and author of Be Less Zombie