Innovation comes from the producer – not from the customer. W. Edwards Deming
I’m browsing through Robert I Sutton’s book Weird ideas that work: 11 and a half practices for promoting, managing and sustaining innovation and I’m not sure what to make of it.
It’s a catchy title and makes some good points right off, one of which I tried to work through and found myself having to modify to make sense to me.
Sutton argues that there are two kinds of work you tend to find people doing.
One kind of work is based around exploiting what we have now in the business.
That means doing what we do in a way that is standardised, that delivers a particular output every time.
This means that if your task is to create boxes or agree contracts you do it with a process that can be audited and justified – in other words you drive out and seek to reduce variance.
It also means doing things they way they should be done – using tried and tested methods.
For example, if your industry advertises in a particular way because it suits your demographic – well, why change?
And the biggest focus of this approach is keeping an eye on bringing in the money now – these companies have accountants whose job it is to tot everything up and make sure people can get paid.
A company that focuses on exploiting its capabilities will find, at some point, that it is no longer relevant.
It was once right for a market but over time markets change – and if you haven’t noticed that happening you could wake up one day and find you no longer have a business.
The other kind of work people do is exploration – the kind of thing that leads to innovation.
The best kind of innovation is driven by a need to serve the variety of demands your customers have.
If a customer comes to you and says they have a problem you have two choices.
You can look at the things you offer and if they don’t seem to fix the problem, you can regretfully say no.
Which a surprising number of people seem to think is the right approach.
Or, you could build the customer what they’re asking for, potentially creating a new line of business as a side effect.
But you can only do this if you’re open to trying new things, if you ask questions like do we have to walk up the stairs and would this bouncy thing work instead.
The point about this kind of work is that it’s like chasing a rainbow – the money might be out there but you’re going to have to go and find it.
People who are in the exploit frame of mind see themselves as the serious ones, the ones doing the important work while the explorers swan off and do pointless, wasteful things.
The explorers see the exploiters as dinosaurs who don’t know that they’re going to be extinct soon – the world will change, it always does, and some people will be left behind.
A company, however, is more than just one approach.
You need both kinds of people in your business – and you can’t let one get hold of all the power.
You need a balance between people who will do the daily work in the way it should be done and people who will create new things to delight customers.
In terms of staff, the chances are that the exploitation category will have many more people than the explorers.
But that shouldn’t mean that they’re more important – the few explorers will quite possibly do the work that enables the others to keep their jobs.
As an individual, you need to learn to straddle both worlds if you want to be in charge of anything.
There are great admin people who will never come up with a new idea, but will also never make a mistake.
There are great ideas people who you wouldn’t put in charge of the drinks round.
These two will always have a job.
But if you can see how to get the best out of both of them, then you have a chance of being in charge.
If you want to, that is.