Innovation is a two-part process. First, we need to create ideas. Second, we need to take those ideas and convert them into something practical and useful. In some ways, creating the idea is the easy part.
Too often, our efforts to innovate focus on one or the other but not both. We may develop lots of ideas on how to be more creative. Yet, creativity without discipline usually doesn’t produce innovation. The reverse is also true. Disciplined implementation processes don’t produce innovation unless we can feed creative ideas into the system.
One way to think about this is to understand the differences between signals and processes. To create innovative organizations, we’ll need both. Signals are about culture. Processes are about decisions.
Many organizations don’t actively foster innovation. They may talk about innovation but the culture doesn’t seek out and promote new ideas, new products, or new ways of doing business. The culture may be innovation resistant; it actively opposes change. Or it may simply be innovation neutral; it doesn’t oppose change but nor does it promote it. Change is hard. To succeed, the culture needs to actively foster change, not merely be neutral to it.
Let’s say we want to change our culture to actively promote change. That’s where signals come in. A signal lets our employees know that we’re changing our attitude toward change. Signals may be simple and obvious. It could be the way employees dress – Birkenstock Fridays! It could be the way work is organized – hackathons! It could be as simple as changing the seating chart or the lighting level or where the coffee stations are located.
Signals are useful but not sufficient. We also need processes that are baked into the culture. Let’s assume, for instance, that our new culture (with its new signals) creates lots of good ideas. Now we need a set of decision processes for evaluating new ideas and deciding which ones to invest in. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out classic financial metrics (ROI etc.) probably don’t apply. Classic financial metrics require predictability. Innovations aren’t predictable. We’ll need new processes.
Processes are useful but also not sufficient. You need processes to make the decisions to get the innovative work done. But you need signals to let people know that innovative work is acceptable and encouraged – and that new processes are emerging. As always, it’s the balance that counts.