Too Busy to Innovate

by Jeffrey Phillips

Too Busy to InnovateI’ve begun to wonder if the concept of innovation in large corporation is an exercise in pointless navel gazing. And no, this isn’t another bashing of brainstorming, or a recent conversion based on my experiences with faulty innovation logic. No, the challenge to innovation is based on the recent development of a core strength: focus, efficiency, time management. As businesses become more streamlined, more efficient, more time bound, there’s ever less time for contemplation, exploration, and, God help us, simply thinking about concepts, needs and alternatives. They are too busy to innovate.

I write this after visiting the office of a client recently. I needed from her one fact, that only she seemed to possess. But regardless of when I visited her office, early in the morning, mid-day or late in the afternoon, she was in a meeting. In fact she ordered lunch to one meeting so she wouldn’t waste time eating lunch. I finally interrupted one of her meetings to simply ask for the data, which she gave me after apologizing for not being available. When I left for the day she was still in meetings. While she may seem extreme, she is not an isolated case.

We’ve been taught to manage our time, focus on what is important, stay occupied and stay in demand. People who are constantly busy are hard to remove, while people who don’t seem as engaged in day to day activities or whose capabilities or energies aren’t focused on tomorrow’s successes are often considered to be less useful or not contributing. Once we are all fully booked every working hour in meetings, discussions and debates we’ll finally be fully efficient, and almost as assuredly innovation will wither and die.

To many of these busy executives, innovation activities appear pointless in the short term. Gathering customer needs, thinking about how the future will unfold, contemplating new competitive threats and emerging needs, generating ideas, these actions don’t drive revenue tomorrow, and take up the time of people who could be gainfully employed doing other things. I’ve written before that most organizations value firefighting over planning and avoiding problems. Everyone will excuse a manager who must rush off to address a problem that in most instances probably could have been identified and avoided with some simple forethought. Few firms award status to people who actively predict issues and work to avoid them in advance. Everything about how we think about our organizations, their structures, their processes, their attitudes, their reward systems, focuses on the very near term, or worse, on a backward looking set of metrics. There is far too little time and effort given to considering what comes next.

Einstein was a great physicist but also a great philosopher and innovation thinker. Perhaps my favorite quote of his was about problem solving. When asked how he would spend his time if he was given an hour to solve a thorny problem, he said he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and alternatives and 5 minutes solving it. Which is exactly opposite of what the vast majority of executives today would do. Most of them would simply define a solution, implement it and have 15 minutes to spare for checking email.  In many organizations we undervalue exploration, thinking, empathy for customer and needs, contemplation, stillness. We often need a “beginner’s mind” but that requires leaving behind the expert’s perspective.

Good innovation almost always starts with noticing a problem or opportunity, contemplating a range of solutions, experimenting and interacting with those that have the challenge or problem, iterating a solution and then commercializing. Most of us want to skip from noticing to commercializing, to speed a solution to market, without the contemplation, the thinking, the understanding necessary to develop a really interesting, compelling solution. Our organizations and the corresponding corporate cultures have taught us to be busy, focused on deliverables, always engaged. But this busyness leaves little time for the true drivers of innovation thinking. We are simply too busy to innovate, and what’s worse, we seem to enjoy the busyness over the contemplation necessary for innovation. Like a man who starves to death in a bountiful land because he is too busy to plant, many businesses will wither because they were too busy to innovate.

With this speed and busyness comes a foreshortening of time. Since we are so busy, we focus on the next activity, the next day, the next fire, postponing issues that are longer term, or require deeper concentration or contemplation. The faster and more efficient a business becomes, the less it is able to think about innovation, and the more attuned it becomes to split second decision making, eventually making all decisions with no thinking whatsoever. This model works as long as the markets and competitors agree to participate in the same race to the bottom. As soon as one competitor stakes out a different business model that offers compelling services to customers, the jig is up. Dell and HP found that out. And their cultures and operating models simply cannot adjust fast enough because all they know is speed and efficiency. Thinking and contemplation, understanding customers, doing things in a different way are simply not in their DNA.

Notice too that there is a happy medium. Apple isn’t exactly a slouch at good practices and efficiency, but has managed to marry good, efficient business practices with good thinking, contemplation and empathy for the customer. We’ll see if they can sustain both, as the pressures for ever more profit and ever more efficiency will weigh down on the profit models. Recently, Yahoo has called in its remote workers, arguing that they need to be in the office to spawn more creativity and interaction. I’m doubtful that’s going to work, unless Yahoo sets aside time for people to think and contemplate. Having more faces at meetings simply increases the number of people who think they need to speak, and will increase the number of meetings, which creates the need for more followup and more meetings until… well, you get the picture. We need to break the cycle of efficiency, not to return to sloth and inefficiency, but to return to good management. An executive who is constantly fighting fires and in meetings can’t build the skills of his or her team or give adequate praise or feedback. An engineer who is constantly engaged in designs or discussions can’t think creatively about new products or desired features. Everything gets watered down, reduced, compacted to the least common denominator when customers want the opposite – something interesting, new, different and relevant.

Modern business culture reads like a Jonathan Swift satire – managers too busy to eat, too busy to think, too busy to lead or manage. Like a Modest Proposal, one day maybe manager and executives will exist only to meet and work in a never ending cycle of efficiency – no families, no hobbies, no homes, but constantly efficient and never innovative.

image credit: businessman multitasking image from bigstock

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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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

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  1. Many executives who are constantly in meetings don’t have as their purpose to be personally innovative.

    Their purpose is often either to shepherd resources of an organization so that growth initiatives generally work, but never kill the cash cow that is funding the enterprise, or their purpose is to communicate information in organizations where direct communication is discouraged or so fragmented that most people don’t know who else might be affected.

    The human switchboard approach can sometimes enable unexpected connections, but it can also force parallel efforts to be bottle necked by a single pathway. For people who want to preserve value and fear radical change that might undermine the existing value, these strategies are tried and true. The same checks and balances that protect the rights of the minority from a rapacious mob when congress is in session, are also the cause of gridlock which makes it hard to rapidly respond to crises. Organizations generally don’t do well those things that are not in their purpose and not measured, and generally reward individuals whose work is measured and meets the organizational purposes — regardless of the other opportunity costs.

    Innovation can be increased, even in large organizations, but not as a goal to itself. It has to be tied clearly to the organizational purpose. And that isn’t something that merely happens in words, but it has to track with what the people in that organization really believe is the organization’s purpose — and that has to be supported by how the organization acts.

    Scott McGregor is a start-up advisor, entrepreneur coach and innovation consultant in Silicon Valley.

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