Innovation for "Non-Innovaters" - 3 minute read

When you say innovation people tend to have one of two responses. A small group says, “Ok, lets get started.” A far larger group says, “Oh, sorry, I’m supposed to be in the other room where they’re walking over hot coals.” 

Ask someone who works in the innovation space how to be innovative and they’ll tell you. It’s some combination of: 

  • Be curious
  • Be open
  • Connect ideas
  • Learn from failure
  • Try and try again

To them its not rocket science. (Unless they work at NASA, if they work at NASA it is rocket science.) 

For the vast majority of people who do not consider themselves innovative the process is a mystery. But as complexity science teaches us, we need the people living with the problem to help find the solution.   

So we have a dilemma; the very people we need engaged in innovation run for the hills at the sound of the word.

People who grok innovation are tempted to say, "Don't run, let me explain." They kindly believe that with the right explanation everyone will get it. But in our experience everyone does not get it. In fact, we have found the more one tries to explain innovation the more mysterious it becomes. 

Instead, we have found if you want to get people involved in innovating don’t tell them about, have them do it. Give them simple tools and structures. To support innovation outside of innovative spaces I suggest a combination of: 

  • Simple tools
  • Clear steps
  • Small goals
  • Everyone plays 

When people do not believe they are innovative types you first have to remove the pressure to be innovative and then support them in stepping gently into the process. 

When we were working with scientists at Genentech they were frustrated by the word innovation because they work in a heavily regulated space. How did we expect them to innovate when Federal regulations seemed to pin them in at every turn? 

First thing we did was had them build a constraint box. We had them name all the regulations that hem them in. These were written out in the shape of a large box with an empty center. Next we had them name everything they knew to be blocking them, from the Federal Government to managers to culture. Then we examined each of their assumptions and eliminated any constraint that did not stand up to scrutiny.

At the end there was a large empty space in the middle of box. This was their solution space. With a simple tool the team defined where they could be innovative. From there we introduced other tools to help the team start to imagine what they could do. We did not make it a free for all. The next step was another simple tool with a small goal. 

By giving people small steps with clear goals we were able to move them away from what they can’t do and gently into the innovative space of what they can do. And not once did we say, “You’re being innovative.” We simply said, we’re going to give you some tools. 

Judah Pollack