Innovation’s Problem Child #18 #cong17

By Jane Leonard

Jane Leonard #18 problem child

Photo by Jason Rosewell

 In preparing this piece for Congregation. I decided to think about innovation as I experience it in the organisations I work with. I work with a variety of private and public companies and I lecture in a third level institute of technology. I am an enthusiastic supporter of developing people with an innovative mindset.

I wanted to reflect on communication as one of the key drivers of innovation and innovative behaviour. I believe that communication is the glue that holds the people in the organisation together. It has a major impact on the culture of the organisation. Yet it is often seen as the problem child, especially internal communication. 

Most organisations I encounter are trying to incorporate innovation into their organisational culture. They want to create a culture that helps people to learn about innovation, to thinking innovatively, and finally to become an innovator. They all say this type of culture is crucial for sustaining innovation practices. 

I believe that communication is a critical driver in creating, and sustaining these innovative cultures and developing people with an innovative mindset. People who can listen, craft rich conversations, create powerful presentations, understand the users’ problems and translate data into information, will not only kick start innovation but will ensure it has the momentum to deliver the required change.  If you really want to be innovative or even create a culture that supports innovation in your organisation you will need a shared focus on innovation and communication. 

Innovation is becoming increasing complex. Innovators are tackling bigger problems, more complex problems, and smaller intricate problems all of which can an impact on people’s lives. This creates pressure on people and on resources. Communication is becoming more important at each stage of the innovation process. It should be the enabler of innovative problem solving. Yet, when I speak to people they say that the communication is fragmented, unclear and is often a barrier to getting things done.   Too many people are frustrated, demotivated and burnt out by poorly communicated messages. 

Communication of knowledge and feedback is critically important in developing innovative mindsets. Yet, innovation can create silos that restrict the knowledge sharing. The people in each silo may share data but not knowledge. This is often compounded by the use of overly technical terminology which prevents others from participating in the conversations. The tolerance of this type of behaviour creates a culture where individual departments may be innovative they may also be working in parallel rather than in collaboration with each other. This is a lost opportunity, as knowledge sharing and capturing insights is a necessary component for real innovative problem solving.  When we raise this as an issue, many managers see this as uncooperative behaviour rather than a lack of effective communication processes or platforms. 

 When we focus on communication as a driver of innovation rather than as a “necessary evil”, it can deliver real results. Communication needs to be part of a knowledge management strategy, where knowledge is an organisational resource. Taking the implicit knowledge and making it explicit and available to others on demand can reduce errors, frustrations and ultimately save time.  We use personas or try to understand the problems from the users’ perspectives. Perhaps we should use some of the same techniques when communicating internally. 

If you say you are transforming your business or sector, it is not sufficient that you have abandoned redundant processes or created new improved products.  The criteria of success should not be limited to the pure business outcomes. I think the success should also be measured from a communication and knowledge sharing perspective. Have you shared that knowledge? Have you left a map for others? Or have you pulled up the ladder after you achieved your success?

If we cannot innovate and communicate innovation internally, what legacy are we leaving behind?

Think about your organisation. Are the embryonic innovators relying on anecdotes of how you or others saved the day? Stories of how “this would never be allowed nowadays”. Innovation exhaust fumes containing only myths and legends that illustrate some magical differences.

In my experience, innovators, who see themselves as leaders will take the time to reflect on their work. They see their communication as opportunities to mentor or develop their team. They encourage cross functional collaboration. They see innovation as an organisational competence rather than a competence that resides in the special ones. They encourage “Toolbox talks” or Lunch and learns”. They are demystifying the process of innovative problem solving. This is one of their most valuable gifts. The new and emerging innovators need to understand the subjective decision making and experiences of the people who have gone before them. While they can of course read books, or listen to podcasts on innovation, nothing beats the retelling of the organisation specific stuff. 

Does your company encourage people to share the messy details of their processes, successes and failures? 

To develop a culture of innovation and embed it in your organisation, we need to scaffold people and help them to understand their organisation and the ecosystems in which they work. This scaffolding includes using less jargon in your communication, and encouraging more cross functional conversations. You may find that some problems are not solved by innovation they are solved by better communication and collaboration. 

Your teams do not need more communication. They need meaningful communication.

Collaborative innovative process must be part of the organisational culture, available to all not just a one-man show  (Lockwood & Walton , 2009). One of the myths that effective communication and innovation share is that they are both produced by individuals or “special “people working in grand isolation. More typically both are the result of creative collisions. Where the different people, ideas and concepts collide to create a new concept. These creative collusions rely on connecting people and encouraging conversations. Many companies have designed physical spaces to foster this activity. However, in companies where employees do not share the same physical space emails, online forums or even shared folders can foster more collaborative thinking. 

A strong innovation culture does have elements of magic and but if you put more supporting elements in place the returns will be so much greater. This is my request to you. Use your communication to show how your disjointed growth process, talent, ambition, equipment or circumstances all played a part in your success.  Help your people to develop a shared understanding of the process and the product of innovation. These shared beliefs are two-way streets that place a premium on commitment, not just compliance — and allow innovation in all aspects of your business to flow within the organisation. (Llopis, 2017)

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie