Wednesday, June 3, 2015

FEI 2015 Recap: The Cliches of Innovation

Author's Intro: Believe it or not, this is my fourth FEI conference, and while each of them has been an experience unto itself, there have been a number of consistencies that resonated throughout the conferences (besides Michelle James being awesome and Hype giving insightful advice). So, rather than talking about FEI 2015 on it's own (but see these summaries), I'm going to hit the themes that keep on coming up.

I want $10 for every time someone says "prototype" at FEI, with an exponential increase if they use the word multiple times in a row. Either that or a Monty Pythonesque chord analogous to the one for...the shrubbery. I've heard both a comparable number of times, and I'm left to wonder why it is that innovators need to be reminded year after year that they need to prototype.

Probably because they don't prototype.

In fact, most of what I hear about when companies mention their innovation endeavors are Minerva-type entities that spring into life fully formed, and then either they sink or they swim. Considering how often these projects sink, one would think that people would take to heart the advice on prototyping. The reason they don't, though, is that prototyping requires a willingness to tolerate the ambiguity of partially-formed ideas, the nimbleness to pivot when something isn't working, the courage to lose money on a little bet, and the savvy to quit when the effort looks like a total failure.

This, however, means dealing with unpleasant situations. It means not always knowing where things stand or where they are going (try explaining that to stockholders), not always turning a quick and consistent profit (ditto!), and it means braving the sting of failure (not so easy). With those risks in play, it is no wonder that companies would rather present the [often false] fanfare of an alleged full-fledged endeavor, and blame some external factor like market changes when it fails (who can prove otherwise?). This holds double when compared to building up a slow, painful, and chaotic prototyping endeavor, even if it is more likely to be successful, because there's no way to pass the buck if it fails.

I don't hear about culture quite as often as I do prototyping, but there have certainly been a number of talks about building a culture for innovation, complete with servant leaders whose visions support innovation endeavors. This, too, seems like a trope, until you realize that most of the people in the company who want to innovate are not in the C-Suite. For them, getting the resources to innovate is quite a challenge, because they often have no access to senior management despite their likelihood of having a better idea of where there are problems with the company's products/services. Also, many managers have no idea how to deal with the kinds of smart, talented people that are needed to do problem solving and innovation (here's how). The result is a lot of ideas that have no way to be implemented because there are no good opportunities or resources for acting on them.

And, because these innovation cliches are so easy to describe, but so hard to implement, they keep showing up in talk after talk, year after year, as different experts try to stress the importance of prototyping, culture, and C-Suite support. One might think that, since it is so clear that these features are critical, there would be ways to make them happen, and the fact is, there are! But, they all require companies to take a long, hard look not just at their missions and value propositions, but at the limitations of the people who are a part of these firms. These people need to face down painful, high-pressure, dizzyingly chaotic situations, and continue pursuing the novel and useful, and there is a point past which no amount of advice or consulting services that will make it easier. Companies need to face those pains themselves (especially with stockholders freaking out every time the stock price plummets 1/4 of a point), and only those willing to do so will actually survive this innovate-or-die business world.

Everyone else can go prune shrubberies.

About the author
Orin C. Davis is a self-actualization engineer who enables people to do and be their best. His consulting focuses on making workplaces great places to work, and his research is on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. In addition to being the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory, the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark, a science advisor at Happify, and an advisor at FutureIdeas. Dr. Davis is an adjunct professor of Psychology and Management at Baruch College and a lecturer in Critical and Creative Thinking at UMass Boston. He writes and speaks avidly about human capital, creativity and innovation, and positive psychology. (@DrOrinDavis)

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