The need for innovation – Go Bananas

Profile picture for user cebess By Charlie Bess June 8, 2015
Organizations need diverse perspectives to be resilient and grow. Too often we don’t fertilize the organization with a vision, cultivate creativity or harvest the innovations that are in plain sight.

I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion for a large company in the Dallas area on the importance of innovation for corporate health. At one point during the discussion I was asked: “What is the impact on a company that does not have innovation or diversity?”

My response was probably not what they expected but I started by saying:

“Are you familiar with the issues with bananas? The ones in the store today are not actually the same as the bananas eaten before 1960. The bananas we are eating today may not be around much longer. Why? It is an issue of innovation and diversity.”

Before the mid to late 50s the banana varietal most eaten was the Gros Michel banana (Big Mike). They were so widely loved and cherished throughout the world that they were planted to the exclusion of almost all other varieties of banana. A fungus (Panama disease) wiped out vast tracts quickly, since they were all essentially clones and they all fell victim in the same way.

Today, most of the world grows a gastronomically inferior species called the Cavendish banana – we just don’t know of the difference, since there has not been a viable alternative for half a century. Rather than learning from our mistakes, today this species is planted almost exclusively, globally. Once again, the Cavendish is falling to a new strain of Panama disease. Don’t give up hope though, since we will have other bananas (that are not as tasty as the Cavendish) to choose from since there are thousands of banana varieties in nature.

So you might be wondering what does this have to do with business. Often it can seem that innovation just happens. It is either part of the culture or not and there is not much you can do about it -- that is clearly not the case. Just like with bananas, we know change and diversity of perspective are required for corporate health and growth, otherwise we’ll stagnate and eventually be made irrelevant.

Yes, there are elements of invention that are serendipitous and we can be grateful that they just happen, but there are definitely clear ways organizations can increase both the supply and demand for innovation. You need to tackle both.

My view is the first thing to do when tackling innovation in an organization is a current situation analysis. Assess the barriers to the creation and adoption of innovative solutions. In the panel, we broke the barriers down into a number of categories:

  • Individual
  • Group
  • Organizational
  • Industry
  • Society
  • Technology

In our discussion, it was stated that for an innovation to actually be adopted, it needs to overcome all these constraints. I actually view it slightly differently: you need to evangelize an innovation across all those areas for it to be embraced, since many times you can overcome these constraints if handled properly. One thing is clear though, the process of innovation adoption will need a bit of innovative thought as well, to overcome the barriers to innovation.

Some typical innovation creation/adoption barriers are:

  • Group think - When tackling problems, do you have sufficiently diverse viewpoints to develop new ideas quickly? Diversity of perspective will help new ideas come to light, quickly. If we are all thinking the same, only one of us is needed.
  • Holding too long onto past success - Does the team bask in the glory days, rather than long for a bold new future? All too often the successes of the past limit our thinking.
  • Communications - One thing that surprises me is often leaders fail to take into account the behavioral potential and the need to formally communicate a vision, how it will be measured, and why. Communicating aspirations plants the seed for innovative solutions.
    Strategic planning is different from innovation. Innovation can be channeled by strategy. It is true that “culture eats strategy for lunch” but when you can establish a nurturing and innovative culture it sets up the foundation for on-going innovative returns. Communications is at the foundation of that culture.
  • Short-term thinking - Don't just accept the first good idea that comes along, innovations can take time. On-going continuous engagement is required to create a stream of possibilities.
    Definitely start experimenting and prove ideas, but keep your mind open for further developments. Set funding aside to cultivate ideas, but have an exit strategy to pull the plug when they've gone on long enough. The only real failure is the one you don't learn from.
  • Expectation of proven results - We've all heard “We've never done it that way!" at some point in our careers. Constantly experiment and prove out new ideas. Don’t dismiss them for just being new.

Some of the best ways to foster innovation are:

  • Cultivating diverse relationships – Are you working with local universities (they always need projects)? Are you actively trying to capture the insight of your older as well as younger workers? Or those from different backgrounds or experiences?
  • Start small but think big – Have a number of innovative efforts in the works. If you don't have a few running, you're not trying. Do you pay your employees to work on innovations after work? If not, is there some point when you would? If so, do you ensure that all the money isn't spent by the time the 'real innovation' comes in the door??
  • Peer coaching – What is being done to share ideas? Collaboration tools are common and techniques like gamification can help make it fun and rewarding. There are numerous ways to either formally (synchronously) or informally (asynchronously) share perspectives across organizations. Often it is the discussion of “If you can do A and I can do B maybe we should do C together." where innovations develop.
  • Have a process – To succeed at innovation, organizations need to have a process that fits with the culture and that people can understand. It needs to be holistic, from idea inception through capture, execution and validation. It is not really an innovation until its adding value.

Every business should be awash with innovative ideas based on the service and technical changes underway, fueled by the abundance of IT capabilities available. Remember that when people say “I’m only human”, they are saying that humans by nature creative. We like to do things differently. We’re naturally innovative.

There are new options, so ever changing, diverse perspectives and techniques will be required. These options need to be prioritized in an organized way to maximize benefit. Have a plan to improve and understand the variety of techniques available. Don't monkey around and leave innovation to chance.

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door – Milton Berle