A stormy tropical beach

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg: 'Innovation as usual'

The concept of restricting innovation to short-term ‘getaways’ has had its day, according to the co-author of a new book. So how do we treat innovative thinking as an everyday norm?

Once a year most companies send their senior staff on holiday. And it’s always a very nice holiday in a country manor hotel, where the atmosphere is relaxed and informal, where colleagues get the chance to play golf and take lengthy evening meals together. The destination is always the same, and the authors of ‘Innovation as Usual’ call this magical utopia ‘Brainstorm Island’. Brainstorm Island is a wonderful place away from the usual work environment, facilitated by professionals who encourage the notion that there’s no such thing as a bad idea. After checking in, we’re all asked to come up with new ideas that will help our organisation reach beyond doing things the way we’ve always done them, so that we can come up with the next iPhone or the new Facebook.

No one ever checks out of Brainstorm Island feeling deflated. We leave the mythical hothouse of ideas charged with renewed vigour, fresh approaches and a determination to get the best results from our best people through inspirational leadership. But after a fortnight, despite our best intentions, we have forgotten all our promises, while our slightly baffled workforce sits back and watches us gradually return to normal, feeling (as we inevitably do, too) that nothing’s been achieved and nothing’s changed.

On the face of it, a relaxing getaway to Brainstorm Island should be a good thing. But it only really serves to highlight that innovation - which is the Island’s buried treasure - is a marginal distraction from the grind of doing business. ‘Idea jams’ sound great, but they achieve very little, because as co-author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg says, to reach a point where you are truly innovating, this kind of thinking needs to be routine and not just reserved for special occasions. “If you are a leader working in a regular company, how can you help your people become better at innovation, not as a one-off event but as part of their daily life?”

According to Wedell- Wedellsborg we live and work in a society that tends to think that “being innovative equals looking like Google, with football tables, Hawaii shirts and dogs at work”. But innovation does not have to be flamboyant. If you work in a traditional company the whole Hawaii shirt culture can be counterproductive. “Instead, find a way to make innovation happen as a regular, inconspicuous part of the culture. In the short term, it’s not about changing the culture; it’s about changing creativity so it fits into the culture.”

The established practice of taking your team off-site has had its day for several reasons. First, it carries the implication that creativity can be thought of annually, rather than as an on-going process. This leads to ideas being shelved for lengthy periods of time, stored up for an airing at the brainstorm. This further leads to the perception that simply having an idea is synonymous with innovation.

But most importantly for Wedell-Wedellsborg, the breakaway “no such thing as a bad idea” school trip simply doesn’t work. “People think they work because they are a great experience, and everybody’s happy when they get back to their desks. But if you come back half a year later, as we have done with many of the companies we’ve studied, you see that the workshop didn’t have any actual impact. The real work needs to happen on the other 363 days of the year. That’s where leaders should focus their efforts, not on making better workshops.”

The role of the leader

To make the other 363 days of the year count, Wedell-Wedellsborg says you’ve got to reach an understanding of the role of the leader. He admits that there are a lot of books out there on how you, as an individual, can become more creative. But “there is a lot less guidance on how you, as a leader, can help your people become innovative. That is a very different challenge from trying to turn yourself into the next Steve Jobs”. The leader’s job is very rarely to be the innovator, but is nearly always to achieve things through the people you have in place.

Understanding how local leaders can bring about innovation is key to the message of ‘Innovation as Usual’. These are the people who can bring about change in the way a company works. “A lot of books take a high-level, management-consulting perspective on innovation and say, ‘here is the model you have to implement in the entire organisation to make it happen’. But that’s not very helpful if you are the head of a department somewhere. What we are saying in the book is this: ‘here are some things you can do to promote innovation, even if you are leading a small team in an otherwise innovation-resistant organisation.’”

There are six of these ‘things’, and this is what you’re paying your money for when you buy Wedell-Wedellsborg’s book. This is the distillation of the research of two highly experienced and respected authors. If you want to make innovation a core activity, part of the daily workflow that is supported by your team, you need to examine some key concepts outlined in the book:

Focus - Direct the search for innovation and help people focus on what matters

Connect - Help people connect outside the organisation for new insight

Tweak - Make people test and challenge their understanding of the problem

Filter - Help people evaluate and discard ideas continually

Stealthstorm - Help people navigate the politics of innovation inside the organisation

Persist - Motivate innovators to keep going

Boiling down a strategy into a set of bullet points can be quite helpful, as are the case studies that illustrate these points. But where ‘Innovation as Usual’ really cuts through the white noise is that it is fearless in its message (the section on how to kill off ideas is particularly useful).

And the message is loud, clear and simple. For innovation to happen in a meaningful way it has to be part of what the author calls “the daily work. And that is really the biggest challenge of innovation. How do you make it happen when innovation is not your first priority?

“It’s easy to be creative if you are on a two-day off-site. It is a lot harder when you are back at work and you have to make it happen alongside your regular duties. What we offer are some simple tools and techniques for making that happen.” *

Innovation as Usual’ by Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is published by Harvard Business Review Press, £16.99

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