April | Culture by Design | Read time: 12 minutes

Why is innovation so difficult to implement?

The Hill’s Hoist, the rotary lawnmower, WiFi, companies like Canva and Atlassian; Australians have a history of invention and innovation.

Key Insights

  • The difference between innovation and creativity
  • Why the lack of innovation is not just HR’s problem to solve
  • The elements vital for innovation to thrive
  • Don’t rush to the solution, fall in love with the right problem first

Innovation drives industries and can create entirely new ones, however, many organisations are inexperienced with the tools required to make those leaps and bounds needed to stay relevant in a changing world. This isn’t merely about the next billion dollar idea, innovation is needed if we’re to tackle the Earth’s most significant problems, those of which will eventually affect us all. Innovation isn’t about change for the sake of change. It’s about identifying real issues that need attention, because when companies innovate, we all win.

“We cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Innovation Versus Creativity

Creativity certainly has its place when original solutions are needed for difficult problems. However, creativity is subjective and difficult to measure. It may involve hours or weeks of input from a wide variety of seemingly irrelevant sources; a chance conversation; an unlikely pairing of expertise. Creativity is the freedom to tip the ideas out of the boxes to play and connect them in unusual ways – however, this may end up having no physical output.

Innovation, on the other hand, is about developing ideas into reality. It’s measurable, process-driven, and introduces change into stable systems. Innovation requires looking at what already works, identifying an unmet or unrecognised need and applying creative resources to design a solution.

Culture drives innovation

We’ve said it before: culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage. Innovation can turn this into your invisible advantage. In an innovative culture, employees know that their ideas are valued and believe that it is safe to express and act on those ideas and to learn from failure.

What sets up a culture of innovation?

It’s not just the soft stuff that needs massaging to encourage innovation. Real dollars, real action, needs to be thrown at altering an approach to doing business.

At Keogh, we’ve observed critical pieces to the puzzle of innovation: people, culture, technology, systems and organisation structure. Attention needs to be placed in all these areas if innovation is to become a key value of an organisation.

1. Technology and Assets

Consider the assets you have at your disposal within the workplace. Would removing those cubicle partitions make communication easier? Do teams need a unified communication app such as Slack? It’s highly likely that to drive innovation, you may need to invest in technology. However, all too often organisations are quick to buy the technology, but don’t have the mechanisms to make it work. Tech is an enabler, but it can’t do innovation. That’s where humans come in.

2. People & Culture

This is about matching the right people to the right challenge and ensuring they are well resourced. You’ll also need to need to create the right environment for them to shine – that’s culture. Leverage new routines to promote innovation, recognise successes, capture learnings from failures, and create formal and informal opportunities for people to collaborate. Also, realise that the best in your industry may not always be the best for the job. There are situations when an unrelated industry, or employing consultants will bring fresh insights where internal staff may not be able to see the forest for the trees.

3. Systems

It’s challenging to set up an innovation team if the company budget doesn’t allow for it. Does your infrastructure allow for cross-department problem solving, or is work siloed in different departments? Is your QA process restricted to the end of the development process? Lastly, if you want to encourage collaboration, look at how the organisation incentivises performance – this may also need to be changed to team-centric rather than individual.

4. Organisation & Roles

How organisations and roles are structured makes a big impact on innovation. The more red tape, the more stacked the hierarchy for idea approval, the more siloed the organisation is, the more likely you are to stifle innovation. If roles are tightly scripted with little leeway for free thinking, pushing the envelope and play, the less you will be able to encourage those big ideas.

It’s about falling in love with the problem.

One mistake many leaders and innovation teams make is not spending enough time with the problem, before moving onto solution mode. It’s easy to overlook the root of the problem when significant time hasn’t been placed on immersing oneself in the end user’s mindset, their potential hurdles and drivers.

Let’s imagine some engineers are looking to improve the rail journey from London to Paris.  Currently taking around two and a half hours, they estimate that by buying up farmland to put in straighter tracks and moving to higher-speed train, they could shave a full 20 minutes off the journey time. The approximate cost: $700M.

Or, for a fraction of the price, they could put free high-speed internet on board every train, while offering free drinks and trolley service to passengers; the result being an improved (and shorter-feeling) journey in the minds of their passengers.

Falling in love with the problem before jumping to a solution, essentially involves getting closer to your customers and understanding what they want. Really want. Feeling their pain, their joy, knowing the problem as if it were your own.

Next Steps

What active steps can an organisation implement to keep innovation on track in your organisation?

  • Make innovation a strategy that the whole Executive team owns, not just HR. Set a collaborative innovation metric at this level.
  • Invite disruption at the outset, both to company processes and your habitual work methods. When new projects or initiatives are proposed, address areas where improvement could be made and invite challenge of the status quo.
  • Allocate time and money for experimentation. There’s no need to go big; investing in lots of small, failed experiments, will eventually lead to at least one big win.
  • Add ‘innovation’ to the formal agenda at regular leadership meetings.
  • Select and up-skill innovation leaders so they’re able to coach others in innovation confidently.
  • Debrief on all successes and learnings across every project, and share this widely and openly.