‘Innovation’ is the great word of the early 21st century. With innovation we have the sexy promise of disruptive shifts and exponential growth. I think innovation is great. However I want to wave my hand in the air for slow change. It’s not sexy, but there’s a lot to be said for working at continuous and incremental improvement of your business processes and products.
A tortoise and hare story
In my early years I was interested in the stock market. A friend of mine did an IPO and overnight was worth $50M. This is a true story. But then he rode the stock down and now has nothing. He’s a nice guy, and insightful. He said to me, “You know, the best traders are the disciplined ones: they take a 10% profit, minimising their risk and leaving some profit for others. They reinvest some of their profit in blue chips. Looking back at it now, 25 years on, I’m glad I took his advice.
In our company, we’re dealing with people, not shares. Our business is unlocking organisational potential through coaching-based executive and leadership development solutions. We have created some great new programs, which we consider to be ground-breaking, however that’s on the back of years of continuously improving on what we offer to clients.
Slow change: continuous improvement
Continuous improvement is slow change. For us it’s an ongoing discipline of developing depth in our core capabilities, fine-tuning our understanding of industry and client needs, and improving our offerings. This might be developing a new website, improving programs or providing upskilling workshops for our coaches. This is not ground breaking stuff: it’s not exciting. But what is exciting is to look back at what we’ve created, particularly our growing community of long term, happy clients.
I think it’s on the basis of that slow work that we can stick our necks out, with what we think may be disruptive innovation in the world of organisational development.
Rapid change: disruptive innovation
Innovation has become a dominant contemporary theme in the business world. My colleague Glenn Ball has elsewhere discussed creativity and innovation, and the need for companies to adapt and innovate for survival.
A Google NGram search yields about 650,000,000 results for the term ‘innovation’. It’s usually seen as something new that disrupts the existing market, with a focus not just on the generation of ideas but also on the successful application of those ideas.
While 'disruptive innovation' rates only 2.5 million Google searches (a minnow compared to 'innovation', which has been trending since the 1940's), it's clearly the big idea of the early 2000's!
Our embrace of (disruptive) innovation carries some assumptions: that novelty or newness is an inherently good thing; that innovation (particularly tech or IT) equates to a better society or organisation; and finally that there is a direct link between innovation and economic growth.
Now you might think that I am anti-innovation. I’m not. I just think that hares and tortoises are both smart creatures.
Doing things right or doing the right things?
Chris Argyris talks about single loop learning: asking if we are doing things right and then perhaps doing things better. I would equate this to continuous improvement. He then describes double-loop learning: asking if we are doing the right things, questioning assumptions and then perhaps doing better things. I would equate this to innovation. The problem is I think that people forget the ‘question assumptions’ part and just assume that all innovation will benefit us. Innovation becomes a self-validating activity and every self- respecting company has an ‘innovation policy’.
Innovation for its own sake – don't get me started!
I think it’s healthy, in the spirit of Chris Argryis’ double loop learning, to question these assumptions about the value of continual self-validating innovation. I have to say that recently at my place, we bought a new juicer. It occupies a massive amount of bench space, has more detachable parts than a LEGO model of the Eiffel Tower, and produces little juice. While I’m standing at the kitchen sink for 30 minutes pulling apart, scrubbing and trying to fit the parts back together, I do wonder why they had to go and reinvent my faithful, boxy old Breville. This is a trivial example. Well, no, it’s a good example of newness for the sake of it, with questionable results.
I’m an advocate for fast and slow change, for both doing better things and doing things better. There is an element of hyperventilation caused by the spectre of rapid change and fear of being left behind if you don't innovate. As a coach, I encourage people to slow things down a bit, so that they can question assumptions and think strategically about innovation, continuous improvement and what mix of these is needed.
Innovation is a mindset as much as a practice
I like to think of innovation as a mindset as much as a practice. This is about developing a mindset of being open to change and improvement. It’s about being willing to challenge your own assumptions, improve on what you’re doing and embrace new possibilities. This is what we try to do in our coaching practice, both in the coaching room and in our own business.