Innovation Paradox – Slowing Down to Speed Up

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Paradox - Slowing Down to Speed UpI was watching my Twitter stream recently and saw that Roger von Oech had noted that a lot of creativity and innovation is based on paradoxes. You can see his original post here, and also note especially the comments to his post where people added other “paradoxes”. I thought this take was interesting, especially in light of the IBM Institute for Business Value Survey that has just been published. You know it has to be interesting when the title is Capitalizing on Complexity.

In that survey the IBM authors note that the pace of change is increasing ever more rapidly, and the complexity most businesses face is also growing. The authors suggest that good leaders should embrace the pace of change and the growing complexity by considering three factors in their business: creative leadership, customer intimacy and operational excellence (my words, not necessarily theirs). In their discussion about creativity, they basically make the argument that the current thinking and strategy that exists simply can’t confront the pace of change and the growing complexity. The CEOs surveyed suggested that creativity as a leadership skill was going to be required in new leaders.

As I argued recently, that puts many organizations behind the proverbial “eight ball” because most executive education is based on conformance, managing within strict guidelines, adherence to rules and playing it relatively safe. Most organizations discourage divergent thinking or place it in carefully defined silos. Additionally, few organizations attract and retain truly creative people – most traditional organizations prefer to hire “creative types” from marcom firms, ad agencies or design firms – then send those individuals back to their firms once they’ve injected the minimally acceptable amount of creativity into an organization. CEOs are suggesting, conversely, that larger firms, facing complexity and rapid change, need to add creativity to their management skills and distribute creative thinkers throughout their organizations. These recommendations are probably correct, yet could create whiplash in firms that have just awarded themselves the gold medal in the Six Sigma non-variability Olympics.

But, it’s probably time to link the two disparate threads of this post together. We’ve already identified the dramatic change associated with introducing creativity as a management skill, and the concept of paradoxes for creativity. What do they have to do with each other? I think that the best thing most firms can do from a creativity and innovation perspective is to slow down in order to speed up. There are several factors within this statement to unpack.

First, in most organizations everyone is far too busy. There are too many meetings and too many decisions and too little time to think and reflect. We’ve begun to value people by how “busy” they are and thinking that time is valuable. Time is not valuable. Knowledge and insight is valuable. We need to encourage our most important managers to slow down, think about their products, customers and markets in context, and use some unstructured time to think about new products and services, rather than allow them the rather pathetic excuse that they are simply too busy to think about the future.

Second, it is natural to try to do things more quickly in the face of ever increasing change, but then we join a treadmill directed by some other power – not driven by our pace. As we try to increase a lethargic organization to match the pace of the market, especially dynamic global markets, we’ll quickly recognize that bureaucratic organizations were built with the intention of slowing things down, rather than speeding them up. Let’s use that to our advantage. Rather than react to the market, let’s forecast what we believe the market will do, using trend spotting and scenario planning, and put the power of the organization to work defining the future. Then we can set the pace of change and work on developing the future products and services at our pace, and using our strengths, rather than trying to maintain the rat race established by someone else.

Third, we need to consider what is “fixed” and what is “fluid”. Traditionally we’ve assumed that business models are fixed – they exist for a period of time, and then they perish. The buggy whip manufacturers spring to mind. What is assumed to change if the business model is fixed is the product or service – we are constantly changing existing products or introducing new ones within a fairly consistent business model. What if, as the IBM survey suggests, we assume a business model is flexible and should change over time? What if the business models are adaptable, and products and services are adaptable as well? What remains “fixed” is the customer value proposition and the firm’s strategic intent, while everything else is subject to change. Suddenly change and the pace of change isn’t measured in product lifecycles, which are growing ever shorter, but in business model epochs or eras. What isn’t going to change drastically over any period of time is the customer’s need for excellent services and experiences. If we can “fix” those, then let’s construct business models and products that evolve on our timescales, changing as necessary.

Given the fight or flight instinct, it is natural in humans to react to changes in our environment we think are threats or things we can’t control. Perhaps if we change the “paradigm” to assume we can assert a paradigm in which we decide to embrace the threats of speed and complexity rather than fight them, and do so by slowing down, looking further into the future and creating change at a pace acceptable to customers and to ourselves. After all, customers are just as bewildered and threatened by the complexity and pace of change as we are in business. Customers don’t want change for change sake, they actually want their problems to be solved in ways that are easy to understand and adopt.

Some firms that grasp that they control more of their future than they think they do, and who are willing to slow down to embrace complexity and change, will be the winners.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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  1. Loving how you’ve unpicked the philosophy and the constant business struggle to achieve success in the name of innovation!

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