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.

It seems for a long while doctors in the 19th century did not wash hands between examining different patients or doing an autopsy resulting in perpetual cross infections and high mortality. One such example is by Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis who found out the link after observing a lot of cases but not before a lot of people losing their lives. The mindset is still the same, people need to be presented with a lot of data before they could take an action without applying the knowledge and reasoning.

Either the data way or highway

I have met my neighbour who is a doctor and he sometimes asks my granny for advice to take care of his child. I asked him “You being a doctor, why are you asking my granny for advice, she can’t even read”. I was in school when I had this conversation, I did not understand at that point. His reply was “Not everything can be found out scientifically, people over time will develop the habit of observing cause and effect, so grandmother’s advice works most of the time”.

There are different ways one can take a decision, data is one of them. There are others are like observation (anecdotes and personal experiences), logical (computing using formulas), hypotheses (works in one case, it should work in another similar case too). The problem with a shiny tool is everyone wants to buy that and then try to find how to use the tool instead of having a place for each one of them. The mindset I observe is that people can afford to be wrong as long as the data supports them. What if the data collected and analyzed is not the right one. People who think that they can solve any problem using data, can you predict the next FIFA world cup winner with a great confidence? Can you program a bot to get 100x returns from stock markets in a year if we can access the necessary hardware and tools?

While data crunching just like multiplying numbers is best left with machines, computers will speed up the rate at which humans can make mistakes. What use is of a knowledge that we extract from data when we don’t have an opinion or a theory on what to expect? Human intelligence should have its space as it is equipped with the most complex computer which is hard to understand how it works.

Just by running behind a method is not going to help, same with running behind the toolset and techniques behind data. One should know what they want to achieve instead of just trying to setup an infrastructure then wish for something to emerge out of it. There is also a rampant misclassification of simple analytics, graphing and time series as data solutions. Let us use all the available tools in the arsenal, not just rely on the shiniest one.