If being innovative is so important to organizations, then why is it so difficult to achieve?

Innovate or evaporate – sounds pretty stark even for ducks? Japanese business professor Hiro Takeuchi says that “creativity is not an issue in Japan …it is the only issue!” A recent survey of 500 top CEOs in America asked them what their organizations needed to survive in the 21st Century. Top answer was “to practice creativity and innovation.” However, only 6% of them believed they were tackling this effectively! Embedding creativity to drive innovation is clearly not a quick fix.

If it is recognized as so important why is it so difficult to achieve? The short answer is that, while each organization is different, there still needs to be an holistic approach. We need to get some important “ducks in a row” — to borrow from a popular metaphor — to ensure we substantially increase the probability of idea generation to drive innovation.

So, which particular “ducks” are there in the organizational pond that we need to consider?

Innovation & Strategy: First, is innovation an integral part of all strategies and policies? For example, is ongoing innovation strategy a hefty chunk of the monthly Board Meeting, or is it left to planning processes which operate like sclerotic Victorian pipework?

Top management support: In most organizations, ideas are “born drowning” — already at risk of dying — and poor leadership can either stretch out a helping hand to innovative ideas or look the other way. Do managers see their job as leaders who should “clear the way” for creativity, or maintainers of the status quo?

Tools and training for employees: People and learning are fundamental. Courses which provide a few creative tools to a few people cannot ensure that creativity will magically flourish at the workplace. Are people given the tools and the support climate to encourage creativity and innovation, or is ” my people are just not creative” still the prevailing misconception or excuse?

Innovation metrics: Unbalanced scorecards are often used without innovation metrics. Intellectual capital assets do impact heavily on market value. As Bill Gates said about Microsoft, “our only factory asset is our imagination.” Creativity and innovation can be measured — and “what gets measured gets done.” If it is also rewarded then it is even more likely to get done!

A pipeline for ideas: Only systematic processes incorporating lateral and logical tools can deliver innovation. Is there an effective innovation “pipeline” or end to end tracking system for turning ideas into innovative services? Serendipity, divine intervention or luck are unlikely to prevent your organization from being “mugged” by the future.

Our collective mindsets: We all have mindsets comprising attitudes, beliefs and values which drive our behavior. These range from individuals who believe “old dogs cannot learn new tricks” to organizations with corporate “immune systems” that reject new ideas or challenges to existing business models. These collective mindsets can be barriers to creative progress, and need to be “unlocked.” As Peter Drucker comments, “defending yesterday — i.e., not innovating — is far more risky than making tomorrow.”

Knowledge management tools: Information technology is an enabler allowing organizations to break through the traditional barriers of hierarchy, function and geography to spark new ideas and to bring all the minds of the organization into the game. How many organizations have an intranet which does not capitalize on this possibility.

Customer and supplier mindsets: Customers demand innovative products and organizations demand innovative suppliers. Are current (and future) customers involved enough, to support a dialogue about inventing the future? The future may be something they do not know they want until they see it or are made aware of the possibility!

The time to act is now!

When is the best time to discipline your ducks? Now! is the short answer. The gap between imagination and achievement has never been smaller. Starting somewhere is preferable to weighing up the options until the organization goes bust. Business guru Gary Hamel is adamant that, “radical innovation is the competitive advantage for the new millennium.” Clearly a wake up call to establish the current whereabouts of all ducks would be useful! This may prove difficult, however, given the power of some of the likely internal mindset constraints. As the economist J.K. Galbraith once commented, “Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to – almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” And all the ducks need to be tackled since it is no more possible for an organization to be partly innovative than for a woman to be partly pregnant!

Finally there needs to be a willingness to listen to, and act on, the change plan that will inevitably result. The ducks can then be prioritized and brought into line.