Strangling Innovation

Not even the best innovation team can escape bad systems. Without looking at your systems, innovation might just get suffocated.

Halloween is full of frightful costumes, decorations, and performances but few things are more terrifying for innovators than systems that strangle our best efforts. What’s even scarier is that these systems might be living among us right now.

A recent episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain featured a look at BS Jobs: the kind of jobs that sap our enthusiasm, creativity, and productivity seemingly by design. In the stories that emerge we hear about sometimes comical roles, tasks and responsibilities that seemingly have little purpose for the worker (and the company) other than employment.

While it’s easy to laugh at things like workers spending a week sitting in a supply closet with nothing to do, the more serious meaning behind this is that we create systems that suppress the human spirit and that squelches innovation.

While these kind of jobs might be obvious innovation killers, what’s more insidious are the things that suffocate innovation slowly.

Innovation alchemy

Rory Sutherland of the marketing consultancy Ogilvy, recently spoke at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management on the topic of behavioural economics, marketing and decision-making as part of the promotion of his new book on the same topic. In his talk, Sutherland pointed out how an innovation like TaskRabbit (and other similar apps) often get their solutions backwards.

His suggestion is that rather than start the service design with the problem you need solving start with the time you have available to receive the problem solver. The reason is the system of interconnections that mediate the service experience. To illustrate, he pointed out his broken sink (wash basin) at home and how it needs repair and still does. It’s taken 8-months to fix it.

The reason isn’t because he can’t get a plumber or sink, but that the coordination effort required to find someone, find and select a new sink, book an appointment (and find a mutual time when he and the contractor can be at his place at the same time), go to the bank to get a cheque (because some vendors require that) and beyond are too many, onerous and not able to be performed at the same time.

The innovation is not connecting to the supplier — a real innovation is creating a system that would allow for coordination of this all at once. He went further to suggest that such an innovation might also allow him to book in other appointments from other contractors for things he needed done for the same time seeing that he was going to be home anyway.

By starting with the time, not the service, as the organizing framework we offer a new opportunity to innovate and provide service. Sutherland’s theory is that this is the alchemy of change — it’s not a rational science.

Breathing space

The issue is that the coordination costs surrounding a relatively simple task (fixing or replacing a sink) become enormously complicated without a system to account for them. We see this in organizations and decision-making. A simple decision needs approval and then shared with others who offer their opinion, which changes the decision, which requires new approval and so on.

Often the decision is never acted on because it dies of strangulation due to procedures and policies.

I once worked with an organization that sought to build trust through transparent communication requiring that all relevant emails be cc’d to all members of this 15-person steering committee. This committee was located all over the world and thus there were messages to and from this group at every hour of the day. There was no breathing space to act, just to communicate.

While filled with good intentions this group — one that was intended to support innovation development and delivery — stifled it.

Failure to launch an innovation may have little to do with talent, ideas, capability, or resources and everything to do with the systems that suffocate these assets from being put into motion. Are you allowing innovation to breathe?

[As morbid as this is to consider, innovation is really a living thing — the lifeblood of a creative, sustainable organization. If you’re feeling short on breath, contact Cense and we can help release some of the ghoulish hands around your body. We design innovation systems for organizations.

Happy Halloween – Cameron]

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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