Typical thinking says innovation happens in a flash of brilliant insight. Or with a brainstorming session where creative types scrawl on whiteboards and free-associate words and ideas to come up with the next big thing. Ironically, we've developed a norm for thinking outside the norm.
The unfortunate fact is that these models of innovation don't really rely on the science of what works in the real world. The issue is that many teams and organizations don't know how to truly innovate or to maximize the capacity of their teams.
Sure, if you're Google, you can create an entire team or facet of the company devoted purely to innovation, whether the idea works or not. For example, Google X is an elite subsystem within Google that truly works on huge initiatives that fall far outside of what is actually (at this point) driving their business.
But, what do the rest of us do? Most of us are maxing out every possible ounce of time and energy just keeping the doors open...and innovation gets pushed to the back burner.
I've got good news for you...any company can innovate, and innovate effectively. It takes commitment, a distinctive mindset and focus from top leaders. Those aren't easy things, but here's what an innovation platform doesn't need: Lots of time.
Groundbreaking new research from the University of Cologne and featured in an HBR podcast interview with Leigh Thompson, professor at Kellogg School of Management, suggests that in fact, we need LESS time to innovate effectively.
Literally...we're allotting too much time in our prototypical innovation sessions to actually get the best ideas.
Research shows that 75% of our ideas happen in the first 50% of the time allotted. It seems crazy, but our brains actually respond better to pressure when it comes to ideation. Two other issues start happening with more time:
- Ideas get recycled in slightly different packages, because the group is clinging to a certain mindset. How many times have you stalled on an idea without looking at it in a totally new way?
- Defensiveness begins to take route. There's no doubt that the collaborative aspect of innovation is critical, however, with more time to hash things out, the propensity to get entrenched in each of our own biases is heightened.
Before you outlaw brainstorming and set all ideation sessions for 5 minutes, let's look at why these traditional innovation protocols aren't working.
The big issue is the human dynamic. Entrenched ideas, reverting to well-worn patterns...these red flags for innovation stem from traditional innovation practices that don't support how we as humans actually operate best.
Consider the typical one-hour brainstorming session. You probably hear from a handful of people who are comfortable leading the charge. Maybe that's because they're adept at verbalizing ideas and unafraid to speak in front of the crowd or to continually drive home their point.
That's a behavior and action bias that favors a certain kind of person. Nothing wrong with it and you need those folks in the room, but what about the more quiet employees? Susan Cain writes "There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas," in her stunning book QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. That's a big chunk of people you're missing.
Brainstorm leaders may also be those with a penchant for big-picture thinking and analyzing many ideas at once. Again, huge assets, but do you have a way for more precise, process-oriented and methodical thinkers to contribute? They'll help to ensure your innovative ideas are implementable.
What's at work here is that not only do typical innovation models tend to favor certain kinds of people, but combine that with the way we actually think and develop new ideas and you get a perfect storm of ineffective ideation.
Here's how to overcome these issues:
- Cut the actual sessions where a team comes together to innovate in half. However, provide a pre-work, individual assignment first that spurs thinking.
- Create ways that supports to all types of thinking and behaving to communicate their ideas. Not everyone is going to leap into a brainstorming free-for-all. Try less verbal concepts like "brain-writing"
Then...reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. Show a commitment to innovation by following through on new ideas. People see action and they believe in the process. So, you don't have to be Google to be innovative. Nor do you need to spend more time on it. In fact it's the opposite--we all have brilliantly diverse thinkers in our midst and now we've got more time than ever.