Framing “Innovation”

by novel_admin on May 15, 2013

I began this piece by working on a list of popular approaches that spur innovation. Researching online brought a dizzying array of flowcharts, graphs, and nuanced language, but nothing that would reflect the essence of innovation. Why?

To get at the answer, let’s start with the word “innovate”. First introduced in the 1540s, “introduce as new” comes from the Latin innovatus, past participle of innovare “to renew, restore, to change”. Now already we have a quandary, where ideas of “return” and “change” coexist. And no doubt, the safer of the two is “return” since “change” is a state of flux. Thus, you find among the ten insights from the recent Innovation Leaders Forum cited by Scott Kirsner of Boston.com this nugget from Phil Swisher, chief innovation officer at the private bank Brown Brothers Harriman: “Don’t talk about change. Change makes people nervous. We talk about pursuing new opportunities.” The object lesson here is that innovation is change, and that focusing on “opportunities” is designed to mitigate the emotional resistance to change. It’s a familiar tactic: Don’t like the way I’m framing it? Try this.

Bear in mind that Swisher was speaking to a gathering of his peers, including representatives from Goodyear, Whirlpool, Chubb Group, and The Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation. These are large organizations with a multiplicity of bureaucratic structures, where the push back against perceived change may be strong since divisions have to protect their self-interest. An executive who introduces change without accounting for the anxiety it produces is left fighting more than one battle, and unable to suitably convey how specific risks are required for desired outcomes.

So, if we agree that fear of change runs counter to the aims of an organization that wishes to innovate, how can we create an environment where there is a pull toward innovation? One approach suggested by Moises Norena, chief innovation officer at Whirlpool, is to refer to “growing the core”. With the emphasis placed on the foundation or core of the business, there is an inherent stability when introducing change since everything can be viewed as radiating out from a center that is understood and trusted. The image is powerful because it doesn’t run the risk that we associate with change over time and the uncertainty of the future. Emphasis is on the center, on strength — the core values of an organization.

Another approach is not to talk about “change”, “renewal”, or “innovation” at all. It’s to talk about outcomes. To start from the end result and work backwards so that people perceive that they have already arrived. This is the approach favored by leaders who effectively apply narrative to introduce change. They are able to tell a story where the outcome is established and the steps are merely putting one foot in front of the other. Creating a compelling future that appears to be alive and present lessens resistance.

A third approach involves the idea of a life cycle, where an idea comes to fruition, is market tested, released, supported, and then discarded as a new generation emerges. Framing innovation in terms of a life cycle allows flux to remain an implicit and natural part of an organization’s efforts. Also, organizations may need to restructure and start over to innovate. So, this is an approach to consider when there is urgency behind innovation, a pressure from within or without to shift and show a result quickly. Innovation is seen as part of an adaptive process that can be linear and cyclical, allowing for accumulation and dissolution to occur.

The primary concern I have when framing “innovation” is to remove “change” as a threat. There is wisdom in insecurity, but only to the extent that an organization can return to its fundamentals and be willing to question them. Doing so provides fertile ground for new ideas to grow at any level within an organization.

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