I have observed organisations which had innovation labs and accelerators tend to not be successful in innovation compared to places where it is baked into the working style and leaders who set ambitious targets. The biggest reason for failure is having a small group of people concentrate on innovation and have delivery managers who concentrate on efficiency to oversee those programs. Despite being not so productive many organisations run this theatre in the hopes of making it big in some areas.

Everyone will understand that creativity cannot be planned and executed but that is how it is approved in many places. Here are a few important things to keep in mind if innovation has to take off from run of the mill work.

Boredom

People have to be bored to find something else to work and land up on exciting things. Idle mind is a devil’s workshop but that workshop can be put to use for the right outcomes. If people are bored, it means that there was never much work to do which is completely against the efficiency focus of most managers, Mind has to wander to stumble on things that are not obvious. Emptiness is the source of creativity.

All rounders and diversity

The more diversity in the mix of people and experience, the better is the ability to connect various unrelated things into something material. Doctors in the rescue operations may come up with better UX for field devices than a great UX designer who specialises in web design. Quorum sensing and an open communication plan including finance will enable people to see a lot and do mix and match.

No labs approach

The approach of setting up a lab and assigning a person responsible is cool but it is also giving out the signal that ideas will come only from a few people not everyone else. The moment any person who has an idea has to go and explain to another person, get an approval and try it out – it dies. For a lot of people an idea will die if they try to prematurely put it into words and convince another person before letting it mature in their head or try out random experiments to grow it. There has to be an eco system to be able to try new things and measure without too many approval dances to do.

Grit

A company improving their innovation culture cannot see it immediately in their quarterly results. It is a slow burn solution which will take its sweet time to mature and give results just like growing a fruit orchard. We will get indications of it growing but bearing fruits is going to take time and energy. If you wanted it yesterday, better stick with efficiency gains and let someone else do it.

Listening to the people in the trench

Google’s Eric Schmidt had this approach of “Listen to lab coats not the suits”. The greatest point here is, it is coming from a person wearing a suit. His work on How google works throws some light on their approach to innovation. One person higher above taking decisions without consulting people from the trenches is definitely going to stick to tried and tested methods and will not innovate.

There is more to it, but I feel many of the companies running innovation labs have to take long path of changing the culture if any sustainable change has to take place in innovation.

One of the professions that requires the most agility is an author who writes a series. Unlike novels and movies which are published in one go, series are done in a constant interval over a period of time and you can learn from the audience pulse. One such writer is Kalki Krishnamurthy, who started writing historical fiction called Ponniyin Selvan in the 1950s. The story is about the younger days of Raja Raja Chola, one of the greatest emperors of his time and his path to the throne.

As the story is about a great emperor, the author decides to give him an entrance after the other characters are introduced in the plot. For the sake of weaving the plot he introduces another small time prince Vanthiyathevan who has only one line written about him in the entire chola history. His idea was to make the character disappear once the all the main characters and the protagonist are introduced. Kalki’s writing is magic, when I read the 1st part of the 5 part novel I had a compelling urge to go and visit the places mentioned in the book. Such was his vivid description that you can sense a movie running in your mind.

His magical gift in writing worked against him, people fell in love with Vanthiyathevan’s character and it had a big fan following. A lot of people related themselves to the commoner looking Vanthiyathevan than the emperor. At one point as per his plans the author takes him out of the story and starts concentrating on the main plot. People were not happy and the author received a lot of letters from his readers asking to reinstate the role. Reluctantly he reinstates the role and to his surprise people consider and celebrate him as the hero of the novel than the intended person who was an emperor.

The novel reached a great status in modern literature and is considered as one of the most important literary works. Many people read it, admired it and passed on the interest to future generations and the legacy carried on. Had the author not listened to the audience and went about his way of writing, it may have ended up being a mere documentary fiction.

Isn’t this true for any business, continuously checking what the market wants and keep altering their course even if it is against what a business owner or product owner has envisioned? How many leaders will have the will in themselves to kill their protagonist and go for the one whom the market likes? I feel the leaders want to do it, but it is the ineffective feedback mechanism from both inside and outside is what makes them stick to the plans. Listen and act, have an easy learning horizon, see lucky accidents happening.

Would we still have aeroplanes if Wright brothers were not able to invent it? The answer is yes, someone else would have made the breakthrough may be months or a few years later. It is applicable for most of the inventions. The end result for the general public will more or less be the same; even if there was no Marconi, JL Baird we will still be having radio and TV. Things will happen and breakthroughs will be made, some winner may take it all, but inventions would keep happening irrespective of those individuals doing it or not.

Who creates and invents things? Is it the individual? No, it is the environment. If we look through the history, inventions mostly come from places where lower hierarchy of needs are taken care and people are able to concentrate on more complex things to solve problems. To learn well & build upon previous inventions requires a certain level of development and surplus of food, skills and mind space (to mind one’s own business).

Many organisations that I have visited or interacted with the people who work there are doing something the opposite. They are grooming individualistic culture of heroism and rockstars. Some of them have gotten into rewards and recognitions on a big scale to the point of very small achievements are rewarded well. A few lucky individuals who get noticed end up getting a lot of support and becomes a showcase for self fulfilling prophecy and others have to be motivated a lot to do their day to day things that they sign up for.

Workplace has to be an engine of producing high quality people who go on to bring results instead of focusing on identifying high quality people and giving them the upper hand. Workplace should encourage people who are inclined to continuously learn and work well with each other, build on top of existing advancements. It is too easy to focus on top performers but that tilts the balance further out of aspirants.