3 Reasons Businesses Can’t Innovate

When I first decided on having a creative career path, business was the last option I had in mind. Nothing about the world of business seemed to place any value in creativity; from having a standard issue uniform (the business suit), to the cavalcade of lemming-like thinkers, to the world of conservative, slow-to-change mega corporations. A business career seemed like I’d be flushing away every ounce creativity I had.

Business woman crying in hands

Now the business world seems to be changing and maybe business doesn’t have to be the soul crushing black hole of creativity that it once was. Companies like Amazon, Google and Apple are showing that  businesses can be successful through innovation.

And business should be considered a creative field; businesses create products that didn’t exist before, forge new relationships and alliances, and find innovative solutions to the problems of humankind. Not to mention the marketing for said products that needs to be evermore creative, on the level of brilliant or genius, just to break through the noise.

So what is it at the core of how many businesses are run that is ruining their chances to foster creative innovation?

1. Not Allowing Freedom to Fail

Creativity involves failing. A lot! There is the famous story about Thomas Edison creating the light bulb. When asked how he felt about failing 1,000 times to make a light bulb he responded that he didn’t fail, he successfully found 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb. That’s the way the legend goes at least (Every speaker/writer tells it just a bit differently and I haven’t found a more credible citation than this Google Answer).

The Edison story is meant to be motivational, to show the benefits of perseverance, but what it actually shows is the heart of the creative process. On a professional logo design there might be hundreds of discarded versions that all had a role to play in arriving at the final design. Think about the drafts and revisions an author makes before finishing a novel, or the number of shots a photographer takes until the angle and lighting are just right.  With any worthwhile creative endeavor you are going to fail… a lot.

Now look at the world of business and you’ll see that failure is not welcome in many ways. For example the performance review. It’s an outdated practice that doesn’t make sense in the world of knowledge work today, but it still persists.

But why? A performance review on it’s face is a good thing. If the review does what it’s meant to, employees improve their performance, which improves the company and everyone is happy right?

What the performance review actually does very well is create a blame-oriented culture. The yearly ritual is like a playing a high-stakes game show called “Defending Your Job,” where some winners might might take home a standard pay raise or bonus, but losers face having their job at risk, and almost everyone goes home with the consolation prize of being unsatisfied with their job.

Such a blame-oriented culture will only stifle creativity and innovation. When an employee knows their work is being criticized and judged, they are sure to only produce safe and mediocre work as a result.

2. Putting a Deadline on Creative Innovation

I’ve done a number of creative projects where I was asked for a concrete finish date. In the back of my mind I would think… well I can produce something acceptable that will fit your timeline, but I’m probably not going to be happy with the result unless I can live, eat and breathe this thing, making constant changes for an indefinite period of time.

When you are in a creative process, working toward a novel solution, there is no speeding up the process because you can’t work harder at thinking. In fact, trying to work harder at thinking will just push the result you want further away from you. Like trying to grasp a wisp of smoke, the tighter you grasp at it, the more it just slips through your fingers.

Of course, this doesn’t jive with standard business practices and the idea of “management” which is intended to increase productivity. Imagine setting deadlines, tracking key performance indicators, or even trying to incentivize Einstein to “be more productive” as he came up with the Theory of Relativity (which by different reckonings took 7-10 years of thought experiments).

The best thing management can do is create “unstructured playtime” in the office. Google famously did this by allowing their employees one day a week to work on whatever side project they wanted. Called 20 percent time, this led to some of Google’s most profitable products, like Ad-Sense and Gmail. (Google has since killed off 20 percent time, which makes me think employees will now be forced to find the thing they are passionate about and do it only on nights and weekends for the rest of their life like the rest of the country)

3. You Can’t Squeeze Innovation From a Stone

Ever think about why so many people crave travel?

It takes you to new and unexpected places, it breaks you out of your routine, and it opens you up to new experiences and situations. Every day still has possibility and can lead to a new adventure when you are traveling.

Now compare that to your typical workplace experience. People drive the same route to work, work the same schedule every day, go to the same office, see the same people, handle the same tasks. To the extent that someone can break this usual routine, their day might be a bit brighter. And as much as everyone complains about the flood of email they handle nowadays, it seems more likely they secretly crave these little interruptions. It may be the only novelty they get to experience in their workday. And maybe that’s really why people can’t stop checking their inbox.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” (Attributed to Einstein, although he probably never said it). Well it should follow that doing the same routine over and over probably isn’t going to magically spark innovation either.

There is a scene in the movie, Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams stands up on his desk and says, “Why do I stand up here?… I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. You see the world looks very different from up here. You don’t believe me? Come see for yourselves. Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in a another way, even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try!”

It’s hard to imagine workers being able to think outside of the box when they are working from inside of one.

Can businesses change?

There is a lot that businesses can do to foster more innovation from their workers, and it’s not about just installing a Foosball table and calling it a day. It’s about a fundamental shift in how productivity is measured and tracked and it’s about being comfortable with letting go of the reigns. Culture isn’t something that can change overnight.

What do you think are the barriers to innovation for businesses? Let me know in the comments below.