“A culture of innovation” should promote a safe, spirited atmosphere stimulating creative thought and offering ways to identify obstructions that severely suppress innovation. It may also challenge what we believe about our own ability to create. But organizations frequently bump up against two obstacles to innovation:
- Flawed paradigm
- Bad environment
I’m sure you remember the story of the eagle raised by chickens: A majestic bird born to fly in the rare air above the tree tops confined to a life walking on the ground in the weeds. An iconic creature living a life in conflict with its nature – the price paid for not challenging an erroneous belief concerning its identity. But then one day the eagle looked up, and a paradigm shift occurred.
The deceptive and dangerous aspect of a paradigm is not that we recognize the challenge and reject it. No, it’s that we don’t even see the anomalies that challenge what we believe.
This phenomenon is problematic when trying to create a culture of innovation.
When I say you are creative and an innovator – that it’s your nature – and if you don’t believe it, challenge your paradigm. This is obstacle number one that you must overcome. Get out of the weeds, you are an eagle.
Obstacle number two: An unhealthy and dangerous environment – it can destroy a high-flying eagle.
The bald eagle population severely declined in the United States between 1870 and 1970 because of illegal hunting, habitat loss and the use of DDT that contaminated their food supply and negatively impacted reproduction. The good news: The bald eagle is not bald and they are now off the endangered species list because someone recognized the problems and resolved them.
But, like the bald eagle, another creature is under attack: The creative human being – the innovator.
Assault on the Innovator
The assault on the innovator occurs from many sources – here are just three:
1. Fear of failure (play-it-safe habitat)
People’s fear of failure resides just below fear of death on the human fear list. So, when poor results of a new idea or concept are seen as a failure and a black mark against the author, it exacerbates an employee’s already high inherent level of fear of failure.
2. Culture permeated by a powerful resistance to change (RTC).
Emotional connections, relationships and comfort in the known can be stronger forces in a company’s culture than logic. RTC is the DDT of the food-for-thought source, destroying the reproduction cycle of new and creative ideas.
3. Ideas intentionally shot down
A culture of extreme internal competition among employees can destroy cooperation and collaboration. People feel they must hold others down by suppressing creative ideas because others are seen as a threat to their ranking on “The List.”
To recap in eagle terms: a play-it-safe habitat, along with RTC-contaminated food-for-thought source, in an environment filled with unlawful hunters will at best put the innovator on the endangered species list and at worst put them on the extinct list.
So, What Can Be Done?
The eagle is off the endangered species list because someone recognized the problem and did something about it. It was not easy nor did the results occur quickly.
The same is true when attempting to remove roadblocks embedded in a culture. But, one cannot even start the environmental cleanup process unless the issue is identified.
A starting point is to determine the health of the current atmosphere. Determine:
- The number of employee-recommended changes instituted in the past 24 months
- The number of recommendations for process improvements (not yet instituted) offered by employees in the past 12 months
- The number of new ideas you have offered in the past 12 month to help your organization improve
- How many times in the last 12 months have you asked employees for their opinion or recommendation on changes.
If the answer is “nil” – need I say more? There is a serious obstacle blocking the creative nature of the people in your organization.
Why am I confident of this statement? Because, in my opinion, few if any processes are perfect and thus can always be improved. And employees have an excellent perspective of the issues and solutions and want to offer their ideas – they are eagles.
Innovation will flourish in an environment where it is safe to try something new. Thomas A. Edison framed it best, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways it won’t work.” It’s this mind set/culture that sets the eagle free to fly and sets people free to innovate.
These ideas will flourish where people are focused on the objective and work in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Innovation involves a number of people working together toward a common objective. It is this environment that unlocks the true potential of an organization.
If we look up, we just may see something that inspires and challenges us to make a paradigm shift. Life is very special and the potential is boundless in the rare air above the trees – it’s where we are meant to be – it’s our nature.
Eagles love to fly and people really do love to create.