Innovation is Involuntary

Many of the world’s decision-makers have come to the conclusion that innovation is, or at least should be, a high priority. At some level, everyone knows this. Every time we observe some situation that does not make sense to us and a number of ideas rapidly pass through our minds, we are briefly ready to enter the innovation zone. But most of the time, the idea is shut down by machine gun bursts of doubt, fear and insecurity masquerading as rational decisiveness, risk mitigation and mature responsibility.

The truth of the matter is there is often an unavoidable gap between decision-makers and innovators who, from up close, appear to have very different priorities. Still, from the perspective of a greater distance, they may be completely on the same page in that they both do understand that innovation is necessary.

Unfortunately, being judged mostly on the basis of quarterly performance short term makes it difficult to justify taking many chances, and innovation is inherently risky. This is why large companies often have innovation by acquisition as their default strategy. They let the little guys take the chances because they have less to lose. And if and when these smaller entities demonstrate some innovation, they get acquired by the larger enterprises and rolled up into huge behemoths that can be innovation unfriendly, which ultimately causes the innovators to depart fairly soon after their stock options become vested.

Of course, some decision-makers try very hard to attract and retain innovators, which works very well as long as they preserve the requisite degrees of freedom that is the lifeblood and air of innovators. You see, and perhaps many of you already know, that much innovation is involuntary and worth repeating. When companies over-specify what their most creative people should be working on, the new idea density decreases. I have consulted to senior execs of large firms who will remain nameless but were known for working their people so hard that they had seventy hours a week of work mile-stoned and scheduled. They then wanted to know why their engineers did not develop new ideas and products to compete. There is nothing wrong with working seventy hours per week, but something is wrong with over-specifying a creative person’s life – they will quit.

Innovators do not innovate more because you pay them more or apply more pressure for them to innovate. Innovators innovate because they want and, in fact, have a hard time even stopping themselves from innovating. It is part of their DNA and part of their identity. We, innovators, have a very hard time stopping from innovating and no, I do not intend to produce studies that support this as a lifelong innovator with many innovator friends it is common sense to us. And frankly, if you want to eliminate risk by reading a lot of studies so others can be blamed, then you are not an innovation advocate.

In any case, Innovators prefer to do their own experiments – we are a skeptical bunch more likely to trust the results of an experiment conducted by ourselves than one we read about. And since we tend to value our time and energy, we do not take unnecessary risks – we take qualified risks and then qualify them.

If you are a decision-maker, refer to your own personal experience – were the most prolific productive innovators people who were waiting for you to tell them what to do? Did they take orders well? As one with the terrific good fortune of enlightened bosses giving me the degrees of freedom I needed to innovate, I know this works. So ask yourself if this idea resonates with your experience, and do not rely only on studies unless you conducted them. Do your own experiments to qualify the risks.

The perhaps blasphemous assertion here is that most innovation is involuntary and that it is best to get out of the way of an innovator and not attempt to micromanage them. People who are willing to be micromanaged are not the creative ones who can reinvent your company department and life. Be grateful when someone asks many questions and has many ideas accompanied by a bias for action, for you have likely found an involuntary innovator or already have the habit or at least the proclivity to break new ground, explore new territory and make new markets. Do they need some guidance? Of course! But if they are not self-organizing, they are not likely to innovate anything, for it is a long, lonely time-consuming thing to do. Give them freedom, feedback, guidance and time, and they may just do something you never thought of, which has more impact than everything else.

Habits, also called automatic behaviors, are by far the most efficient and effective things we do, like breathing, making love and adapting, creating or innovating. We do not need instruction manuals for automatic behavior. However, we do need instruction, tools, guidance, prioritization and all kinds of help, assistance, and collaboration. Most of all, we need permission to fail. This made the United States the world’s richest, most creative nation. Our founding forefathers did not have much to lose, so they came here. We had permission to value, and it was assumed that we would.

There used to be a department in many companies called research, distinct from product development. These were the people who had permission to fail as it was part of the research. This is one place involuntary innovators used to be drawn to. Another was and still is academia, where research is still required to advance.

Involuntary innovators work and play in labs and studios, performing on stages and presenting at podiums. They have many of the answers the decision-makers search for. And if you are an involuntary innovator working for someone else, you had better find someone who is secure enough to give you permission to fail and also permission to outshine them (at least some of the time). Conversely, you will never achieve your potential working for someone unable or willing to give you the freedom to fail on the way to organizing yourself.

And to everyone, please remember that innovation is an involuntary survival tool.