When Albert Einstein searched for inspiration, he’d sail his boat into the centre of a lake and sit in solitude. Away from the distraction of daily life, left alone to his thoughts, inspiration would strike. There’s similar mythology around other inventors and thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, wrote his best ideas down backwards to avoid plagiarisation. Thomas Edison used to leave his lab so rarely that once, after being awoken by a colleague from sleeping on his desk, he blurted out that he had better get home because he’d only that evening got married. Or so the story goes.
History-defining innovators touched with genius and whose methods are impossible to replicate.
Except there are two problems with the last sentence. Firstly, I’ve deliberately confused invention and innovation. Secondly, the premise that there wasn’t a method to the madness of these people incorrectly assumes that we can’t impact our ability to innovate, which is entirely wrong. Let me tell you why.
What is innovation?
To be innovative is now up there with ‘forward-thinking’, ‘smart’ and having ‘integrity’ when businesses talk about their culture and people. As with any trope, these words have lost their meaning. I don’t suppose many organisations prioritise ‘being stuck in the past’, ‘inept’, or ‘fast and loose with the truth’. Although, whether in the private or public sector or, indeed, in government, aspirations don’t always align with reality.
Yet, in many respects, we’ve overplayed how innate is a talent for innovation. Much like creativity, we seem to consider it something with which you’re born.
The author, Matt Ridley, draws an important distinction between invention – “coming up with a prototype of a new device or a new social practice innovation” – and innovation – “the business of turning a new device into something practical, affordable and reliable that people will want to use and acquire”. In How Innovation Works, he explains that history has consistently demonstrated innovation happening slowly through testing and tweaking. It requires constant iteration and inevitable failure before you ultimately reach a breakthrough.
While ‘a-ha’ moments may come during periods in which we switch our brain off, as with the example of Einstein and his genius pals, by this point, the real work has already been done.
Crucially, Ridley observes that innovation is a bottom-up process, driven by people working together, sharing knowledge, and with the opportunity to work with a degree of freedom.
To illustrate the point, he recounts a famous essay called, ‘I Pencil’, in which the writer, Leonard Reed, describes how:
All of which begs the question:
How do we create the optimal conditions for innovation in our business? Or, to approach it from the opposite angle first, how do we ensure we don’t hinder innovation?
Let’s start with a few facts:
- 71% of knowledge workers reported feeling burnt out last year. (Asana and Sapio Research)
- 87% of people have been working longer hours since the beginning of the pandemic, which adds up to two hours per day on average. (Asana and Sapio Research)
- Only 20% of us are engaged at work. (Gallup)
- Our days are chopped up into pieces like confetti, reducing productivity by up to 80% every time we context switch. (Gerald Weinberg)
- 40% of departing employees report a lack of career development opportunities as the primary reason for leaving. (Gartner)
So rather than come up with an elaborate programme of innovation days and hackathons, we should start by establishing a culture in which people can work creatively and autonomously towards achieving clearly defined strategic objectives.
There are six stages to achieving this, which form part of a framework I call the Work/Life Flywheel – mindset, creativity, experimentation, community, learning and breakthroughs.
- Creating alignment in the mindset of your team towards achieving the company’s purpose and goals is critical to working in a harmonious and productive environment.
- Emphasising the importance of creativity clearly establishes the need for innovation while signalling that every team member plays their part in the organisation’s continual improvement and progress.
- When aligned with the overall company objectives, a culture of experimentation creates psychological safety and a platform for making mistakes without fear of negative consequences.
- For most people, a sense of relatedness and belonging is a crucial part of their motivation to achieve their potential and deliver their best work, which results from building a strong sense of community within the team and the business.
- An attitude of constant learning, whether from colleagues, experiments or external sources characterises high-performance teams. Test and learn, test and learn, test and learn.
- The best teams share a sense of purpose and encourage one another to recognise breakthroughs, large and small. Celebrating progress and the effort of individuals and the collective enables everyone to quickly bounce back from adversity and engenders a culture of continual improvement.
- All of which brings us back around to the evolution of a mindset that is simultaneously supportive and trusting of individuals, turning them loose to make their own decisions about what will positively contribute to the team’s overall goals and wider business.
What does an innovation culture look like day-to-day?
I think you’ll have gathered by now that innovation isn’t about maverick inventors or boffins in lab coats. It’s about designing how we work to unlock individual and collective intelligence through well-considered work and a positive level of accountability. To empower your people to do this, you need to help them design their working days, creating more opportunities to achieve progress.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with teams of varying sizes and across different disciplines. Many have benefitted from simplifying how they design their time to optimise for creativity and productivity, segmenting their days and weeks into four categories of work: spontaneous, focused, collaborative and downtime.
Spontaneous time is for those moments of shallow work (non-cognitively demanding tasks) where some background noise and, if you’re in the office, interaction with others is both enjoyable and potentially constructive. After all, you are allowed to have some fun at work!
When it comes to focused work and collaborative sessions, it’s important to remove all distractions and create conditions that encourage flow, including, critically, setting clear goals (you can read more on flow triggers, here). This matters for numerous reasons, not least because evidence has demonstrated significant performance improvements from individual or group flow – creativity can increase between 400 and 700%, learning rates accelerate by 490%, and people can become 500% more productive.
Of course, things pop up now and then that take priority, so build in some flexibility by leaving a free half-hour at the end of the morning and afternoon to catch up.
While, in reality, you may not perform at that level immediately, or even every day, by empowering people to work in this way, you’ll quickly yield results, the benefits of which compound over time.
Last but not least, as a high-performance innovation culture is demanding mentally and physically, it’s critical to counterbalance this with downtime. Of course, this is the part that we often forget, leading not just to exhaustion and burnout but to diminished performance. The trick to building a sustainable approach to innovation is, therefore, to incorporate downtime into everyone’s schedule – not just allowing moments of recovery and reflection but encouraging it. After all, why do you think it was that Einstein used to sail to the middle of that lake?