Innovation Apologies: Newness is Messy


From a few of my more popular posts you may have surmised that I am some kind of innovation guru. Or that I have successfully walked the path and can now look back, stroke my beard, and tell you how I did it.

The truth is I can’t. Because I haven’t. Because that isn’t how innovation works. I haven’t ‘done’ innovation, I am doing it. Innovation is an active process. And it’s on-going. I am lucky enough to be a sweat-encrusted, grimy, blue-collar innovator, and I work as part of a team. No single innovative idea that I have ever put in place has been as a result of me working alone.

Worse, I have made mistakes – and continue to make mistakes. Our entire team has. Getting it wrong is as important as getting it right. Newness is messy.

If you were to come and look at where I work, I would struggle to show you the great new things we are doing. Because we’re still getting there. And the biggest revolution so far has been in the hearts and minds of my colleagues. Yes, you will see and hear about great things now and in the near future, but if you only see and hear those things, you will miss 90% of what we have done are doing.

The truth is, I am lucky enough to be knee and elbow deep in trying to make new and better things happen on a daily basis. But I am not alone. Innovation is a collaboration. And it is also part of a bigger collective dream of a better way of doing things.

But if you do want some advice, this is all I have to offer. Please take it with a heap of salt:

1. Innovation needs a blueprint to pull the entire team together. This plan needs to be one that is collectively created, evidence based and focused on innovation towards a specific goal: a better way of doing things. All sub-aspects of any new initiative must be informed by this over-arching blueprint.

2. Innovation is hard work. Slapping down a few gimmicky pieces of technology, a shiny new prospectus, a glitzy website, or some nice branding doesn’t do the job. You need to wrestle with ideas and better ways of doing things (as well as old habits, and embedded assumptions – the things many will call ‘traditions’).

3. Innovation for one is not innovation for all. Getting one person to change one thing they do is often enough of a victory to boost the entire project. Set manageable goals, but also make them just challenging enough. Pushing too hard too soon, and setting goals that are too lofty, is like trying to build a skyscraper overnight. Somewhere, something is going to collapse – and take the rest of the project with it. (What this also means is that goals need to be customized to each person’s strengths – while still taking them just far enough outside of their safe zones.)

4. Sustainable innovation is never the result of a ‘thought leader’ (whatever that is). It’s the result of a team of committed and hard-working people. And if you don’t have those people yet, give the ones you have the skills and inspiration they need. (So easy to say, isn’t it?!)

5. Communication between all members of an organisation building something new is essential. Keep everyone in the loop, be gracious and be respectful. Moreover, give everyone a voice. The most amazing ideas are unearthed if you stop and listen to the quiet guy working the shovel. However, to be perfectly frank, some voices will need to be edited out of the conversation. The easiest way to spot who to not to listen to, is to identify the person who tries to sabotage key aspects of the project. There is a difference between pointing out some possible pitfalls in an honest, constructive, and open way, and trying to topple things over.

6. It’s good to plan and to put structures in place. But if you spend all of your time planning for every eventuality, you’ll never get a thing done. Things will go wrong, and when they do, adapt the plan or adapt the implementation.

7. Look at the evidence. Ideas are wonderful, and yes, be creative. But what does the latest reputable research say? Do these ideas have real world merit?

8. Acknowledge your mistakes. No, embrace them. Squeeze them dry in an attempt to learn from them. And if you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not really innovating. There will be set-backs and constraints. Work around them. It’s easy to give up. It isn’t as easy to make a plan to carry on. And the best innovations often happen as a result of constraints.

9. Good things take time. Take the long view.

10. Never stop imagining what could be. If you think you’re finished transforming, you’re not thinking hard enough. Network and create opportunities to keep on learning, to keep on building and to keep improving.


Innovation is disconcerting and it’s audacious and it’s exciting. And it is hard work.

And that’s it.

Now jump.


Share your thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s