Why is Innovation So Much More Successful than Simple Change?

Innovation vs. Change
Innovation vs. Change

In a world where rate of change and rate of progress are rapidly accelerating, it is likely a good call for management to consider why innovation is so much more successful than change and to use that information to foster an innovative culture.

When we look for synonyms for the word innovation, we find terms like change, transformation, revolution, and even upheaval. With a term like change leading the charge and an identity as a revolution rounding out the description, it should come as no surprise that the innovative organization is exposed to many of the same downside emotions and risks as an organization going through CHANGE. Yet, somehow, innovators don’t seem to get ham-strung by the same roadblocks or meet the same diehard resistance as do organizations trying to deploy a new software solution or restructure their sales department. Why is that?

In his writings on Innovation, the author and researcher Peter Merrill gives considerable attention to the factors that affect or impact the development and existence of cultures of innovation in organizations. In his work, he states that successful innovation actually requires the effective balance of two cultures. One culture is based around creativity and the other is defined by Quality, because Quality supports execution of the creative idea in a robust and repeatable way.

For a management team that is seeking to understand why innovation works and change is a struggle, it will be helpful to know some of the key behaviors exhibited by organizations that are considered successful innovators. We can find examples of these values in Warren Parry’s book, Big Change, Best Path.

For innovative organizations, change is a constant state. Employees actually show up to work every day with the expectation that something new is going to happen and they will have the opportunity to be creative. The environment fosters an expectation of growth, both personal and professional. The business is in a constant state of movement, so there is no before- or after-change demarcation. From a Quality point of view, we would call this a widespread and deep commitment to continuous improvement. In this type of environment, everything we know about strong employee engagement and commitment is inherently activated.

Not surprisingly, a common trend in such organizations is confidence in leadership, in their vision and their planned execution. This often means the costs associated with pre-change awareness communications and in-process change education and support can be significantly reduced simply because staff is content to follow management’s lead. How great is that?

Another earmark of these organizations is that the innovation is not restricted to a top down approach. The truth is far from it. The majority of the innovative ideas and concepts come from within the organization’s body. The management levels that see the problems or the challenges then lead the solutions without fear of failure or demotion holding them back. The opportunity afforded Google employees to spend 20% of their work time on their own projects is an often-cited example of how empowering employees leads to great innovations and is the earmark of an organization with a strong culture of innovation.

But let’s get back to why a culture of innovation is a necessity rather than an occasional nice-to-have that we roll out for some special event like bringing a new product to market. A culture of innovation is a necessity because rapid rates of change, whether they are due to disruptors entering our marketplaces or the evolutionary benefits of applied technology, have an ever growing impact on our operating environments. We see this when we observe how the on-going trend of digital transformation speeds the delivery of information that, in the past, was delayed or slowed down by manual processes and digital gaps.

This trend of more immediately-available information will require our organization’s policies and employees to be empowered, so they may be more responsive to what is happening right now. The opportunity to plan for what could happen or prepare in advance will be limited, because the speed with which our world and our customers engage in digital transformation will require us to keep up.

These events will also increase the demand on individuals in our organizations for prompt decision-making. We will seek and value those employees who demonstrate their capability with soft-skills in areas such as communication and impromptu team-building, and who are engaged in seeking greater knowledge, not just of our own organizations but of the larger world.

In his writing, Peter Merrill identifies that diversity in our workforce is a key contributor to successful innovation. He points out that opportunities for successful innovation typically require the existence of teams or other organizational structures that bring together people who are “different from ourselves”. It is in the nature of this difference that new ideas are uncovered, because they shake up our thinking and help us avoid decisions based purely on the status quo. Have you ever heard the story of Steve Sasson, who developed the first digital camera for Kodak back in the late 1970’s? In his own words, Steve tells us that when he presented the camera to Kodak executives, their most pressing question was, “Why? Why would anyone want to do it?” Well, we all know where Kodak is today, and we accept digital media as one of the tools at the forefront of digital transformation.

It is not enough to just be innovative; we must also have the discipline to diligently think through the innovation. An innovative bad idea is still a bad idea, even if it is innovative. So we must have both the environment of looseness that encourages creativity and the discipline of thinking that supports the ability to find flaws and resolve them. Balancing the friction between closed networks, where everyone has clearly demarked functions and responsibilities, and open networks where we can seek data and new insights, delivers one of the key energy sources for organizational innovation. Creating environments where staff can champion new ideas and alternate explanation or analysis for problems and solutions is a critical requirement in innovative cultures. Maintaining discipline on this border of friction is the role of the Quality function in your organization. Look to them to lead your efforts for improved communication and effectiveness.

Not sure if your organization is staffed to make the move to an innovative culture? Take the self-assessment tool found on Peter Merrill’s site QuestMgt.com to evaluate your preparedness.