The Hidden Truth About Innovation - And What We Can Do About It
Michael DeVenney
October 11, 2021

In one sentence, she highlighted the challenge of innovation.

Responding to an article that somewhat criticized the innovative efforts of her organization, a respondent hit the mark about the hidden truth around innovation, saying “Those decisions are made by a group of 8 to 10 people isolated in their boardroom far away from those of us who work with the customers every day, and they don’t bother to talk to us”.

And there it is.

There are two sides of innovation. One view is the exciting and photogenic aspect of smart, young people pitching ideas and winning contests, dynamically racing through hackathons and incubators, creative destructions, and accelerators. These are the lightbulb moments that bring innovation to life. The images paint the picture of a bright and forward-thinking environment.

Flip to side B and the light dims a bit. Removed from the frantic energy of the ideation stage is the boardroom where decisions are made as to moving forward with those brilliant ideas, or not. And in those rooms, there is a tendency to encourage the appearance of innovation while not endorsing the reality of acting on a new and novel development. In those rooms, we want to manage change and not see too much upheaval that may upset the way things have been done. Nothing radical or disruptive should be considered, it may hurt the numbers. And the people in these rooms know each other, and those performing similar roles in other companies and organizations. This is a tight group. There is a sameness in approach and, shall we say, the brightness of the ideas pale.

We seem to like the activity around innovation but not the inherent risk of experimenting with the new and novel. We change just enough to say things are different and push the rest back down.

In a study we did two years ago, seeking the perspective of young professionals (and just to be clear, young is 21 to 39 years of age) on the economic future of our region, despite the publicity around innovation, 94% of respondents did not feel our region was innovative. That outlook amazed me; how could they see it that way?

This is the sad truth about innovation – we like the idea of it, just not the change needed make it real.

So what about the last three months?

No question, we have seen incredible leaps in innovation over the pandemic. Tremendous steps forward have been made. McKinsey estimated in a recent study that 10 years of digital innovation happened in just three months. That number is TEN!

And now everything is slowing, and the same velocity and vitality of innovation is fading. What has altered the outlook?

It feels like leaders do not feel the same sense of urgency to innovate. The pressure appears to have lessened and we can go back to how it used to be done – keep up appearances and maintain the status quo.

In the depths of the pandemic, leaders interacted daily with those on the frontline and listened to their perspectives. They heard the ideas and empowered the people working with the customer to make the decisions to respond and be proactive. With a shared interest, innovation was led from the edges and amazing progress was realized. No one retreated to the boardroom to debate and defer needed change. People made it happen.

It was the start of an evolution.

How do we continue what we started and make this a twenty first century innovation renaissance?

First and foremost, innovation should be centered on the human experience of the customer. If we understand and appreciate the job the customer is doing and feel their emotions, we can see the possibility. Imagination applied to the customer’s journey with our product, service, or process opens the gates of new ways to add value for them.

The next stage of innovation involves broadening our line of vision, looking up and out. What is happening around the customer in their world? Nothing supports the creativity needed to spur imagination and innovation than diversity. The freedom to hear different interpretations of experience, understand what matters from other angles, and being open to working together to create something new and better is priceless. Innovation is, as they say, a team sport – it is rare that one person develops something new, it is generally the result of ideas bouncing off people so that the end result is something that was touched by many.

And to move innovation to the market, that inclusion of perspectives needs to be upheld. Leaders need the direct interaction and involvement with the people who work with customers each and every day and can provide the context for why change is needed and how it should play out. Diversity should reach into the decision-making about moving forward. We need perspectives by gender, age, and ethnicity as well as cognitive diversity to realize the rich potential of innovation.

We would move from the appearance of innovation to the inspiration of change that creates meaningful value for customers, communities, and how we are in the world.

Let’s not lose the urgency of innovation, the pressure has not lessened, we need to bring leadership of innovation back to the edges, let diversity reign, and decide to make change a lasting goal.

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