Innovation once again? I can‘t take it anymore.

Simea Merki

When we look back at the last century, it becomes clear that innovation has completely turned our lives upside down. From pens to cell phones to artificial intelligence. Innovation is everywhere, that’s undisputed. It’s also in publishing and communications. What would the publishing industry be without the invention of the cell phone, for example?

Innovation is not only everywhere, but also what keeps companies alive. A sad example of this is Kodak. Although the company developed the world’s first digital camera, it was so focused on the success of photographic film that it missed the digital revolution. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Fortunately, there are positive examples, too! My personal favorite example is Play-Doh. Originally a cleaning compound used to remove charcoal residue from wallpaper. As oil and gas stoves became more popular in the 1950s, demand for the product dropped and the manufacturers considered going out of business. The owners heard from a teacher who used the play-doh in art classes in her hometown of Cincinnati. After realizing the potential of a product for children, they quickly switched to a more colorful product.

In the late 1950s, Play-Doh became a toy available in stores nationwide. Today, Play-Doh is owned by Hasbro and more than two billion containers of the product have been sold. It’s a  beautiful true story of innovation.

Innovation keeps companies alive, but how do companies become and remain innovative?

I looked at different companies and get inspired. In the process, I noticed that many innovative companies and individuals share four points of view. Of course, this is not a complete list, but some food for thought.

F like fire

Fire could also be translated as passion. If you want new ideas, you need people who are passionate about a subject. My thesis is that innovation cannot be outsourced. It requires passion and entrepreneurial thinking at the grassroots level. The people who are also familiar with the content of the topic actually have good prerequisites for technical innovations. That’s why it’s better not to create innovation departments, but to integrate employees culturally.

One concept that is often mentioned is, “culture fit over skills fit”. The idea is to select people not only the basis of their skills, but on the basis of their character. After all, skills (so-called hard skills) can be learned and trained. This is hardly possible with basic character traits. Businesses that are lucky and already have such “culture fit” people in their team or department should take advantage of this. This is referred to as cultural high performers. These persons should not be removed from their environment and given a “creative task”, because this can kill the fire. It is better to leave these individuals on the team, praise their strength of character, and allow them to shape the culture.  

F like freshness

Yes, it sounds so simple: staying fresh. But in my personal everyday life, this is one of the most difficult tasks. And yet it’s so important because: Shaping culture and generating new ideas is exhausting. It’s necessary to pay attention to your own freshness and also that of your team members.

I‘ve discovered two points of notable importance:

  • holistic health
  • psychological security

Companies like Adobe and LinkedIn have long introduced so-called “wellness” days, which are designed to help employees achieve better relaxation and mental health. But even if you don’t push such days as a company; holistic health is important. If you don’t feel fit, whether physically or mentally, and you still feel the pressure of work, have to meet deadlines and, in the best case scenario, should also come up with innovative ideas, you’ll eventually be running on fumes. It’s extremely unhealthy in the long run and harmful for the entire ecosystem of a company.

It is also important that there is no performance pressure in the teams. Because it is often precisely the mistakes and the questions that can ignite new ideas. There is an exciting study by Google re:work that showed that teams with good psychological security perform significantly better than teams that do not cultivate this. This factor was more important than education level, diversity, and hierarchy distribution. Psychological safety means that I can bring up a “stupid” idea and not be laughed at or pilloried for it. I can ask questions without being called incompetent. If you foster this culture in your team, you ultimately foster innovation. And it’s not just me who says this, but various studies and behavioral research.

F like freedom

In order to be innovative, we have to question what already exists. And unfortunately, we humans are not too good at that. We like fixed frameworks. Frameworks define who should do what. In other words, clear assignments of roles, purposes and, in the case of people, certain behavioral patterns. We have frames for products, for people in our environment, and even for ourselves.

Such “frames”, i.e., expectation attitudes, are stored in our brain in a similar way to emotions and value attitudes. They are charged with feelings. If someone breaks my frame, or brings an idea that doesn’t fit into my frame, then that is highly emotional. And anyone who is aware of this is a good leader for innovation. We should explicitly allow employees to break frames. The feelings that this triggers in us are our problem, not that of the other person.

However, apart from the freedom of frames, there is also a second important freedom in our minds: the freedom from fixed sequences and overly long concept phases. To explain this, I find the following experiment particularly exciting:  

The marshmallow experiment
Each team is given 20 spaghetti, one meter of string, strips of tape, and a single marshmallow. They have 18 minutes to build a free-standing structure with the marshmallow resting on top. This experiment was done with different occupational and age groups:

Marshmallow experiment April 2010

Architects are the best performers. In the midfield are the kindergarteners. At the bottom are the business economists. Why are kindergarten children better at this test than business economists, who are actually used to planning complex projects?  The difference is that kindergarteners try out five different structures before business economists finish their first one- they ultimately learn faster. Business economists have a single master plan, perfectly planned out. If it fails, everything fails. So we need faults.

F like faults

Faults have a very important function in innovation. They show us which direction is the wrong one. Faults allow us to try again and to take a different, perhaps more sensible path. Because, (and this is the difficult thing about innovation), we often don’t even know where we have to go. Not having the destination in mind, but figuring it out along the way, is the pinnacle for innovators. This line of work requires us to be willing to fail. Otherwise, we’re going full throttle in the wrong direction:
It can be fatal for a project if you plan it through too far in advance. It’s better to plan in the short term, to try things out quickly, to stay agile, so that you can make the mistakes that are so important. You could say- we need to fail fast because failing slowly is too expensive.

Process of failure

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