An attempt to innovate – do something new to produce value — is always fraught with risk and a high likelihood that things won’t go as planned, which can leave people jaded toward future efforts. Whether that metaphor of jade is one of a rock (static) or a plant (growth) makes all the difference.
Innovation is hot. Innovation is necessary. Innovation is your competitive advantage. Innovate or die.
You’ve probably heard one or all of these phrases or one of the myriad variants of them out there. Innovation is a hot word. To innovate is to transform new thinking into new value, but it is used euphemistically to represent all kinds of ‘hot’ things without appropriate framing. It’s not just doing something different, it’s about producing something new that improves on the situation at hand, even if the solution might actually be an old idea re-introduced.
A recent article for the online version of Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are just giving up, ceding the ‘innovation’ space to large firms with a reputation for innovation. Why? One of the reasons cited is that the developing social and technological change has created a situation where “many firms seem to be unable to keep up with the pace at which this development is unfolding.”
The painful experience of failure
Another reason might be the problem of failure. Failure has become another cool word in the language of business and social innovation (even, government) to the point of being fetishized as something noble. The issue with failure is not just accepting that it can happen, but learning from it and acting on that learning. It also means understanding what failure is and whether an outcome is even best described in terms like “success” and “failure” . Too often in innovation, particularly social innovation, we actually don’t know what success looks like so how is it that we can use the term failure so readily?
Failure is a word with enormous negative cultural baggage. Despite all the positive rhetoric of failure, corporations, social enterprises and governments are judged on their ability to deliver what is expected of them. Expectations are really the key here. If you’re a corporation that promises to deliver a certain rate of return on investment over a specific time period, you’re going to be held to task for that. We can speak of failure positively all we’d like, but try explaining the ‘learning’ outcomes to a group of angry shareholders?
Politicians don’t get judged on their ability to manage complexity, they are judged by making and keeping promises — even if those promises are based on (overly) simplistic ways of viewing complex problems. As we entangle ourselves with more complex problems, the promise of a simple solution will be harder to come by. Yet, it’s that hope for the solution that is what ultimately gets us. As I once read in a newsletter advertising an online dating service in a very cheeky manner:
It’s not the rejection that kills you, it’s the hope.
It’s actually quite true. If you don’t expect to succeed, “failure” isn’t really that bad.
Lowered expectations, risk avoidance & path dependencies
When you’re jaded, you tend to lower your expectations. The analogy of online dating above is also an apt descriptor for ways in which lowered expectations changes the very game of innovation in real ways in people’s lives. As divorce rates approach 50%, it is becoming common that many people are starting over sometime in their 30’s and 40’s and trying, once again, to find love. What’s interesting in terms of dating is that, particularly if you’ve been dating a little, you face two big issues: 1) you’re a bit cautious about what you do or say because you know that things might not last and you want to conserve your energy and 2) you’ve become accustomed to the way you do things on your own.
The result might be less adventurousness, more conservative thinking about the choice of partner, a greater willingness to settle for what is, rather than what could be (risk avoidance). An established pattern of living might also predispose you to looking for partners who are a lot like you, which maintains a level of consistency (path dependence). An argument can be made that this is more about knowing yourself and your preferences than being set in your ways, but there is a fine line between that and resistance to change.
This is exactly what we see in organizations around innovation.
They have tried innovation before, it’s failed to deliver what they expected (because they probably set their expectations poorly, not realizing that the outcomes of innovation could be something other than they had designed for), and now don’t want to try. Or rather, they don’t want to try enough. This is why we see so many organizations trumpet themselves as innovative, when what they are really doing is the most basic, simplistic forms of innovation. Rather than a moonshot, they are looking to simply move the yardsticks just a little.
Plant vs stone
Jade is both a plant and a stone. A jade plant is a solid, semi-broad leafed plant that is well suited to dry climates and a variety of light situations, making it a great houseplant. It’s adaptive, easily transplantable and hearty. Jade, as a stone, is relatively soft and while it is also adaptable, once carved into a shape, it’s no longer going to change.
The jade / jaded metaphor is designed to consider the ways in which we approach developing our innovation potential. A jade plant is still firm, but flexible. It grows and changes over time, but isn’t as free flowing as others. The jade plant offers a useful metaphor for ensuring that lessons learned from past actions inform future strategy, but not to the point where the fear of risk calcifies the organization into a static state, unable to change.
A plant exists largely because it has a steady stream of nutrients, water, sunlight and a reasonable stability of growing conditions, yet conditions that can change and will change over time. This consistency as well as requisite variety (in systems terms) is what keeps a plant alive and thriving. The same is true for an organization. Ongoing, steady innovation, consistency over time and the occasional change in conditions to keep things on their toes (and used to adaptation) are all a part of what makes an organization or individual innovative. Build in a regular practice, become a mindful organization (or practitioner) and consider changes in the way you speak about innovation to yourself and others.
Bruce Lee would advocate that his students become like water. Innovators? They should become more like plants for that water.
Image Credit: Jade Plant by Andrew Rivett used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing Andrew!