We have something of a cognitive dissonance happening in the business world. I am running into quite a few organizations that seem to be talking out both sides of their mouth in that they want to be both innovative but also process oriented. Many want to be innovative and outpace our competitors. However they also pride themselves in being ISO 9000 certified in continuous process improvement, Black Belting themselves until they are Lean and Six Sigma’ed. Worse yet, we start this process obsession in school with our kids where we still teach like it’s the 18th century and we reward rote memorization to such as degree that it’s like Google was never invented. And while something do need to just be committed to memory (like multiplication tables which ironically enough isn’t required to be memorized anymore in some schools), education has to be revamped to take into account the knowledge is now just a click away. How to gain wisdom and how to use that knowledge to do good in the world is where education needs to go, but that’s another blog post or two.

Unfortunately, I have to throw some cold water on those dreams. Being innovative or being process oriented are mutually exclusive goals. Innovation is not a repeatable “thing”. Look at the app marketplace. Any time there is a hit app, especially a game app; there are tons of clones within days. The original app creator is the true innovator and likely will suffer for the innovator’s dilemma in trying to launch a follow-on success of equal impact. Clone app makers on the other hand are will-oiled machines that can clone quickly and efficiently. But they are not innovative which is why they rarely are a success. Innovation can’t be predicted and certainly can’t be laid out in flowchart ahead of time. Also if your organization does truly want to be innovative beware of the urge to retroactively look at one’s process on a successful project and assume that simply repeating what you did before will lead you to a another golden goose. Innovation is rarely starkly repeatable. Just look at Pixar. While it may seem after a cursory examination that they simply repeat a process for each hit movie year after year, nothing is further from the truth at closer inspection. If you want to know more I highly recommend checking out Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.”

Heads up. I am not one very much interested in process-oriented companies. If you are, this is probably a good time to bail. If you want to stick around and share my thoughts on the number one secret behind innovative organizations then please, by all means, stick around.

Still here?

Great. Want to know the difference between innovative organizations and ‘process factories’? People. Creative people specifically.

We way over emphasize process over people as a society. It is a fool’s errand to presuppose that success can be repeated by simply documenting and repeating what worked last time. It may work for a short while, but it will be short lived. It’s the people that make it work. They are the ‘X factor’ able to handle what happens when a brittle efficient system goes awry.

Build too strict a system or process and you become brittle. You need flex, wiggle room, slush to be able to handle the unexpected. Think airplane wing stress, turbulence and not having rigid wings. Rigid wings are brittle and make for very bumpy ride, flexible wings are dampers that even out the ride, might not be 100% efficient but effective over wide range of operational environments and contingencies. And it’s people that have to have the ability to make the changes on the fly. Process hounds are great when everything is going according to plan. But when you want to be innovative or handle the unforeseen nothing beats having creative types around. Be prepared though, they hold nothing sacred and definitely not ‘yes’ men or women. They require a different management style than most are accustomed too. And they make an increasingly larger part of each generation’s population. And I surmise that Gen-Y was the turning point in the majority-to-minority demographic, from here on out every succeeding generation will have more and more creative types. Thankfully the Draconian rote memorization school system hasn’t killed creativity and perhaps in some weird Darwinian way, the personality changes we see in each succeeding generation is a counterbalance to an insulated and black/white world we so desperately seemed to want to create where everything fits neatly into a box… while we tell ourselves we are building really innovative boxes. But I have hope that real innovation, more than just a new app of the week, is just around the corner thanks to things like the Maker Movement and all the various open source initiatives.

So if you really want to succeed in the 21st century go seek out and hire the creative types and build an organization that favors innovation over ‘process religion’ and watch the bottom line flourish.

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