In the January 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama referred to innovation at least 9 times. His first reference to innovation was, “the first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”
I believe this statement to be true. However, from our experience working with hundreds of organizations, innovation is quite misunderstood and very rare.
It’s true that occasionally innovation may just happen, almost by accident. And, other times, innovation occurs out of necessity. But more often than not, innovation occurs after tremendous effort and thousands of failed attempts. Innovation is beautiful, magical, and meaningful but it is also frustrating, painful and exasperating. You’re not born to be an innovator, you learn to be one – one failure at a time.
However, that’s not the environment created by the majority of our workplaces. We choose profits over people. We choose cutting over investing. We choose “do it right the first time” over “it’s ok to fail as long as you/we fail, fast, forward.” We choose our best interests over what’s best for the team.
So, I happen to agree with President Obama that “our success in this new and changing world will require reform, responsibility, and innovation.” It’s not only true for our nation; it is true of our organizations, our leaders, our teams and each of us as individuals.
In order to truly nurture innovation, below are three critical areas where “reform” is essential.
Innovation Takes More Time and Less Control
Our workplaces look like giant clocks – tick, tock, tick, tock. We approach innovation as though we can control every single element. But, it’s that control mentality that so often thwarts the kind of environment that is conducive to creativity and innovation. From organizations that are still on a clock in, clock out mentality to leaders that do not know how to create safe environments and facilitate thinking sessions because they haven’t earned the trust of their teams or aren’t willing to allocate appropriate resources (time included), we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Innovation Requires an Investment in Teaching People “How to Think” vs. “What to Think”
From our education system to our workplaces, we’re cutting back on developing thinkers … the kind of people that know how to look at a lot of different information and ideas and discern what ideas can go to market or make a difference. I support the investment we’re making in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) but I equally believe in the those potential innovators who have have a passion for the arts, philosophy, communication, world religion, etc. I love anything and everything that challenges us to think differently because that’s when we’re most innovative. Innovation is more than a new gadget or piece of software, it means “to renew or change.” I will never forget the profound impact of doing a “ride along” with a musical therapist while consulting for a Hospice organization. Music was a way to reach and heal this person in a way that nothing else could. The musical therapist was able to accomplish what medicine could not.
One of the scariest revelations about the future of our great nation, was when we realized that for over ten years, semester in and semester out, our senior college students had gone their entire college careers and had never taken a course that was graded on meeting objectives and solving problems in an innovative way – rather than on a scored bubble test – until they took our Creative Strategy course. And, we tell our clients, this may have been the education system’s challenge, but the day they graduated and you hired them, it became your challenge.
When we survey leaders, “creativity and innovation” are listed in the top 3 in terms of importance for their success. However, when we ask how much do you invest in innovation, the answer is shocking – the majority of respondents invest nothing.
We must make the transition to “how to think” vs. “what to think” in order to be competitive.
Innovation Does Not Require an Important Sounding Title, It Requires Engagement from Everyone
Launching an innovation program or initiative for your organization does not merely involve slapping innovation at the end of someone’s name or creating a new department. If you want exponential innovation, you must develop a culture that involves input from everyone. Leadership must genuinely believe that the hourly employee or the “newbie” is just as capable (if not more) as the CEO of coming up with innovative ideas. And, leadership must nurture a culture in which each and every team member is engaged and contributing.
I come from a working class background. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. My parents struggled to make ends meet. My dad never graduated from high school, didn’t learn to read until I was in second grade and just retired from over 30 years of service in maintenance for the phosphate industry. He is the hardest working person that I know. One of his charming attributes is that when he gets nervous or excited, sometimes he stutters. I have observed people treat him as though he is unintelligent because of the way he speaks or because of the job he did to support our family. But what I know to be true is that he the most innovative person I know. I’d put my money on him each and every time to “outsmart, outplay and outlast” in the game of innovation.
And, as a consultant, I’ve seen dozens of leaders treat some of their team members the same way people treated my dad. Once, when consulting for a county government “road crew,” one of the guys shared that he had seen dogs treated better than their management treated the men who worked out in the heat, making sure that we as citizens had good, safe roads to travel on.
No matter what shortcuts you try to take, innovation involves a lot of time and is best when you have a lot of brains working on your behalf. The most innovative people are rarely asked to share their ideas.
And, the saddest part, is that in my eleven years of consulting, there are just too many of these stories … just think how much innovation we’ve lost out on!
President Obama shared that, “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living.”
This is true for those of us at Catch Your Limit. Our ><((“> team members “do big things” to help leaders of all types of organizations reach their full potential. If you’re doing a great job with innovation, let us know. If you could do better, we’ve got resources to help you. If you are doing a pitiful job, we can even help you, too! It’s going to take us all coming together. Join us in the movement to help America “catch our limit” of innovation.
January 25, 2011
Remarks by the President in State of Union Address
The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.
In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living.
Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.
But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
We need to get behind this innovation.
But if we want to win the future -– if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas -– then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
All these investments -– in innovation, education, and infrastructure –- will make America a better place to do business and create jobs.
Cutting the deficit by cutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.
Our success in this new and changing world will require reform, responsibility, and innovation.
><(("> Melissa Laughon
Melissa is a ><(("> Team Member at Catch Your Limit, a management consulting firm with offices in Tallahassee, Florida and Richmond, Virginia. To learn more, visit www.catchyourlimit.com.