Your organization sucks at innovating

It’s easy to make your organization more innovative if you stop trying to show everyone how innovative you are.

What can you do to add more innovation to your organization? A question, no doubt, asked in every organization. There are simple accessible answers to that question all over the place and countless best-selling books. It’s an easy question to answer, but it’s the wrong question.

There are generally two ways to become more innovative.

We can add things to what we’re already doing (innovation by addition), or we can take things away that get in the way of innovation (innovation by subtraction).

We tend to focus on additive innovation because it’s a lot easier than subtractive innovation.

We can add innovation days. Add time for employees to work on whatever they want. Add inspirational quotes to the walls for all employees to read and digest. It is as if we somehow believe reading these clichés and over-generalizations will nudge employees towards becoming the next Einstein.

But we all know this crap doesn’t work. So why do we do it?

Innovation by addition is tangible. All of this crap demonstrates activity. When asked the inevitable question, “What are you doing to improve innovation,” answers are easy and visible. It doesn’t work but it feels like we’re adding value.

Additive Innovation quickly turns into activity for its own sake: innovation champions, innovation awards, innovation panels. You get the picture. The workforce, seeing this sop for what it is, disengages and goes back to doing things the same why they always did. (Only now they are even busier because they have to sort through this crap.)

But…here’s another thought.

Most of the businesses I know that truly innovate over long periods spend more time inverting the problem. Rather than ask how to promote innovation they ask what destroys innovation? And, remarkably, they stop doing as much of that stuff as they can.

Instead of looking for how to succeed at innovation, look for how to fail at it. It’s a fun exercise until you realize how many of those things you currently do at your company.

Want to kill innovation? Make people attend meetings all day. Send them emails every 30 seconds. Bombard them with too much work. Kill their enthusiasm. Make them write pages of pointless prose to justify something that should be simple. … You get the picture.

Subtractive innovation is not easy. When someone asks what you’re doing to encourage innovation you can’t point to a meeting, champion, or an award. Answering that question with what you stopped doing or some process you removed because it was no longer adding value requires two skills that are easily dismissed in the sound byte corporate culture: thought and nuance.