Anyone who has felt the ‘full force of the wind’ will know the feeling of how hard it is to keep on your feet, to stay determined to stay upright and true, to hold the course, whatever happens.
When you feel the force of change running through the organization, you tend to have that same sensation, to resist the force with all your energy. It is often really hard to let go, the environment was something you had become used to, you accepted and become resigned to its weaknesses and constantly exploited its possibilities or even possibly the other way round.
Firstly the sharks are circling
Change is all around us, it is accelerating not abating. You often hear of volatile trading conditions, a more complex market and situations changing constantly and faster than ever. We do need to re-equip ourselves for constant disruption; we see a shift from the classic bell curve into more of a shark fin. One that is characterised by sudden, even violent success, some moments of brilliant dominance, followed by a dramatic change in conditions as others have spotted the same opportunity and you hit a rapid decline, the race to the bottom of competition constantly negating one another. Market segmenting is shortening or having an even longer tail.
It does seem “creative destruction” is a central force in many of our activities. Activities where innovation is continually replacing not just in products and new services but in designing radically different business models, searching to replace less adaptive competitors in the marketplace.
Some are arguing we live in a VUCA world, full of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. I remember one phrase in a great book to read “Moments of Impact” written by Chris Ertel and a wonderful associate of mine, Lisa Kay Soloman. They regard this period of living as the VUCA world, as “one that is a little like those thrilling rides you find in amusement parks but just not all of them are fun!”
These “change forces” are making many organizations and the leadership a little wary and weary, they double down. They become risk adverse, defensive and determined to ‘weather it through’. They might be hanging on tight, simply believing but the force of change requires a very different set of beliefs and will whisk them away if they don’t adapt and change.
Shifting from accepted to adaptive
The changes that are occurring all around us are those sudden switches from the predictable markets, the interruptions to that constant reassuring rhythm of the one, three and five year plans and developing the organizations principle ‘skill set’ as tackling technical challenges suddenly gets challenged by novel, agile, adaptive concepts stealing the growth out of ‘our’ markets. Where is that feeling of being predictable, offering incremental improvements? Innovation as part of this change is so much more than incremental.
Today we are far more on this quest for novel insights, much of what we do is transient, much that was enduring is being challenged, even ripped out and replaced. We might still hear the reassuring sound of those generic statements of “focusing on our core assets”, “providing solid shareholder value”, “having clear target markets”, focusing on "reducing low yielding businesses to release value and drive up our stock” and the favourite by many “vested” C-level individuals announcing the latest “driving up our share price by a well-designed buyback programme.”
All these generic statements are often masking a deeper story in many organizations not at ease with itself at all. These reassuring statements make those on the outside feel some level of short-term comfort and stay invested but if you scratch the surface just a little, there is an underlying sense of panic. If you push too hard, ask difficult questions suddenly it all becomes a little uncomfortable. The organization is highly vulnerable to attack.
Ignoring the power of choice, a lack of focus and change is dangerous
Constructing a climate for any transformation is hard. Our cultures are deep rooted; we resist those winds blowing into us “full on,” well beyond being reasonable or smart enough to avoid them before they confront us. The Chinese proverb above gives us a clear choice: “to build walls or build windmills”
When an organization decides to change its culture, set about constructing a different climate or environment so innovation can thrive. But there are so many steps to work through, so many obstacles to overcome, bridges to burn, habits to undo as well as construct the path of understanding, of recognition and providing the building blocks to this.
Context is the vital ingredient often never told.
Often we hear "location, location, location" as the mantra for real-state property. What should the mantra be for innovation? For me it is “people, people, people” followed by “context, context and context”. We have often heard (and it is totally right) ‘innovation only happens through people’. Everything else- systems, processes, structures, incentive and investments- sets the context that defines how people approach their jobs. Context not only sets the stage, it gives us the reason to go and find the tools to get the job done but it is ‘our’ people who need to be motivated to go find them and apply them.
The power of context also refers to the conditions and circumstances of time and place for combining new ways to make a shift, a new understanding, perhaps to make the organization more sensitive to the need of innovation, to help fully support the people to innovate.
Context is powerful but only in the hands of knowledgeable people.
So to make change we need context- the understanding of why we need to change and what we need to do with it. Then we can begin to think of the climate and eventual culture we want to have so as to achieve the change. These actions shape behaviors, alters perceptions, establishes itself within the larger social group that change is directed towards, it alters the ‘norm’, it opens up new possibilities and pushes the established boundaries.
Actually making change for innovation is a lot harder.
Let me explain: Innovation however, doesn't work in many of our normal processes and procedures. Yes we constantly attempt to squeeze all our innovation activity into a well-designed process but so much of those more radical innovations just cannot fit and we are then forced to ‘kill them off’ as the system rejects them. We block any chance of making radical change if we remain slaves to the pursuit of structured innovation alone. We should find ways to become flexible, more agile, and more ready to work with ambiguity and find the ways and means to challenge the consistent process for innovation.
Transactional processes have their context embedded in them. Innovation, on the other hand, needs to attach context to every idea or concept, it needs to be moulded, shaped and aligned to the ‘greater purpose’.
Innovation is very fluid; we build systems that often impede it.
I kept a reference but I can’t recall who wrote it:
“An idea tends to be very fluid, and without context may be hard to evaluate or even consider.Certainly any culture that discourages ideas will produce few, that rewards people for complying will not promote challenge and make the necessary breakthroughs business require today in new and different thinking. Having systems that minimize risk will also minimize innovation and risk-taking. Structures built to control only impede the very interactions that innovation thrives off of and restricting the movement of ideas will completely undercut the capacity for innovation”.
So companies need to put a great amount of attention on the context that will allow people to work clearly and effectively and provide the vital enablers that contribute to making this happen. This power of context is something we are extremely alert or sensitive too, and when these change and we don’t understand why, we often just stop innovating, or being productive and often become disinclined to be creative. So making change for reasons that are seen as not clear to those involved stops people from doing their job of making innovation happen.
Context may be the arbitrator of success but people are first and foremost, hence why my two mantras are both critical “people followed by context” that are inexplicably linked for successful innovation but these should always be placed in the right order and recognition; people come first, context follows, innovation flows from the combination and you have the best chance to bring about positive change.
The leader within all of us needs to arise
Leadership when it wants change for innovation needs to encourage a new set of principles so as to draw in everyone to the change process, so they can collectively unleash the potency to create the climate for creativity, innovation and eventual transformation, in a rapidly changing environment and culture that wants this change - it is liberating for individuals.
A number of years back academics Kouzes and Posner developed a leadership practice inventory and came out with five practices that encouraged change. I sort of like these when you think about changing the culture to innovate differently. These were:
- 1) challenge the process to encourage experimentation and taking measured scaling risks,
- 2) inspire with building a shared vision for others to see and participate in a more exciting possibility of the future,
- 3) enable others to act by fostering collaborations, involving different teams in mix and match thinking and exchanges and strive for creating the atmosphere of trust, dignity and being valued,
- 4) modeling the way forward in leading by example, setting interim goals, encouraging small wins and help to unravel the bureaucracy built up around ‘us all’, and finally,
- 5) encourage the heart, share rewards, treat people as heroes, promote solutions that move change, and discuss the learning outcomes.
When the wind of change does blow we must adjust
When the wind of change does blow and it is in every corner of every organization, it really does deliver a ‘punch’ of complex variables to manage. We have invoked “the very nature of a changing climate” needed where the patterns of behavior are required to change; we have the “power of the context” change that is required to alter ‘our state of understanding’.
These ‘change winds’ influence the processes running through the organization as they are challenging and probing what is in place, they are looking to raise the creativity, in adjusting and changing the norms, to making new activities work, to experiment and learn. Then you have to set about how to construct and design a more deliberate process kit for managing innovation, one that is more fluid, adaptive and agile too changing conditions and knowledge, and finally, the setting about addressing the environment and cultures needed to create more lasting conditions, so as to embed the change and establish the new (innovating) order.
Encouraging change has one very powerful empowering step
If you encourage a certain readiness, willingness and ability to want to transform- to devolve power down to the individual to experiment, to create, to develop, to test, then they will want to innovate.
It is not the mechanical systems or processes that innovation often requires, it is the intellectual effort from the people wanting to engage in what it changes for them and those that benefit from something better and different.
I finish with one of my favorite quotes I have up on the wall in my office on change’s effect:
“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is carrying me across the sky” Ojibwa chant
Let those winds blow….but do be ready.
- The Innovation Maturity Model – Becoming More Adaptive
- The Innovation Flywheel
- Clarifying the Drivers of Innovation Change