A client of mine recently expressed a common frustration related to innovation: “Everything we’re doing right now is critical to the business. We don’t have time for innovation.

I asked my client to describe the projects the organisation was busy with that prevented them from focusing on innovation. He listed efforts to add new features to product lines, new system installations, sales meetings, and a rebranding project to create a more resonant message for customers. I waited a moment, hoping he would realise where I was going.

When he didn’t take the bait, I asked a follow-up question, “If you had time for innovation, what types of projects would you work on?” He didn’t immediately reply.

When innovation is considered a nearly unattainable goal that must be achieved outside of the everyday, hectic operations of the organisation, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to find time for it. Few organisations regularly carve out time for innovation. Even fewer have resources dedicated to innovation. And fewer still have taken the time to define what innovation is, or what it looks like.

INNOVATION AS AN OUTCOME

Innovation has long been an ambiguous concept. The statement “we need to become more innovative” conflates a number of technological, cultural, strategy, and process issues. 

The word is often used to describe a desired outcome — an outcome that is ill-defined, but if it is realised, an outcome that will propel the organisation forward. It’s a word that is frequently confused with ideation, or with invention. Organisations may chase innovation for years, never convinced that what they are working on satisfies their criteria of what innovation is. 

Further, rarely is innovation the panacea that cures the organisation’s ills. Even if a single team or project breaks through to exceed expectations, any underlying technological, cultural, strategy, and process issues will likely persist, if not become amplified.

This goal of “producing” innovation — as an outcome that is different from what the organisation currently achieves — is more problematic than it is beneficial. This is not to say that innovative outcomes are impossible to achieve. Many employees have demonstrated a propensity to achieve innovative outcomes despite the barriers and inhibitors that their organisation presents. These employees, however, often experience a fast burn. Their success is not sustainable or repeatable. They swim upstream to achieve the near-impossible, only to be asked to do it again. Top talent will be driven away as they experience frustration at how difficult it is to attain rewards relative to achieving the near-impossible.

INNOVATION AS A QUALITY

Organisations trying to become more innovative should rethink their interpretation of what it means to be innovative. Innovativeness — as a quality — is far more definable, attainable, and sustainable than the outcome-based notion of innovation.

Consider a team that is asked to create innovation goals as part of its annual strategic cycle. This team may come up with an outcome-based goal such as “develop two new innovative products.” 

Instead of piling onto their already-full plates, however, treating innovation as a quality reframes the goal-setting process. Rather than listing improbable outcomes, the team can describe how they will identify change factors, how they will improve their creativity, how they will inoculate their products from competition, how they will gain market insight, how they will increase their customer knowledge, and how they will improve the customer experience. “Develop two innovative new products” could be replaced with “Utilise outside experts to improve the design of two new products.”

By seeking insight and adding capabilities, an individual, a team, or an organisation can become more innovative. As their competency grows and their innovativeness improves, they will be more likely to succeed at developing breakthrough results, they will respond faster to change, and they will be more likely to replicate their success.

I repeated my question: “If you had time for innovation, what types of projects would you work on?” Through the Zoom call, I could see the lightbulb turning on for my client. 

He smiled before he replied, “We’d add new features to product lines. We’d install new system capabilities. We’d conduct market research in our sales meetings. We’d make our marketing messages more resonant for our customers.” Restated, they would do all of the same projects he had just described as preventing them from innovating. They would just do them more innovatively.