fight it with a purpose

November 25, 2019

illustration by swapnil redkar

Innovation has long been recognized as a lever for growth, and is undoubtedly so. But many a time, relentless pursuit leaves organizations without clarity and employees without the strength to cope with the stress.

The digital landscape has visibly altered social behavior, and such alterations, in turn, have had a significant impact on people’s lifestyle and consumption choices. It is important for institutions to understand and adapt to digital-enabled changes, especially those that have caused noteworthy behavioral shifts.

In contemporary business, there is not a single company in the world that does not want to be an innovator, or better yet, a disruptor. Quite the contrary. Companies across the globe are competing for who can be the most innovation-focused, the most strategically innovative, the one with the strongest innovation culture. Innovation, once a marginal interest mainly discussed by academics, has today become the number one priority for companies, and it shows. There is no end to the number of books, LinkedIn groups, seminars, Instagram posts, conferences, workshops, or Twitter feeds that in one way or another comment on and discuss innovation. Innovation, for better or worse, has become a core obsession of corporate executives.

To some, this sounds like good news. To them, a business world chattering non-stop about innovation is a delightful state of affairs, but the truth of the matter is that this obsession has dark sides as well. Whilst we can all agree that innovation is a good thing, we need to stop and ask whether the endless chatter that surrounds it is. Today, in most corporations, we are seeing the emergence of two new maladies, both of which affect their innovation capacity in a most negative manner. I speak here of ‘innovation fatigue’ and ‘innovation stress’. If you have never heard of these illnesses, then do not fret. They are not yet well-known, but in my research I have been able to see how they have spread to companies big and small, all over the globe.

If people feel that their workload is not matched with the resources they are given to manage it, including time, then they can react to this by getting stressed.

Alf Rehn is a professor of Innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and a keynote speaker. He is author of Innovation for the Fatigued.

If we begin with innovation stress, then this is a relatively novel form of stress that stems from the innate problematics of innovation. Stress, in general, can be understood as a symptom of mismatched demands and resources. If people feel that their workload is not matched with the resources they are given to manage it, including time, then they can react to this by getting stressed. Stress then leads to other problems, such as health issues and (particularly pertinent here) difficulties with creative thinking. Innovation stress is a special case of all this. We might say this is what occurs when people in an organization face continuous calls to be innovative, yet struggle with understanding exactly what they are supposed to do, coupled with not getting enough resources (such as time) to truly engage with innovation. If employees are told that they should be innovative in their work, yet is not given clear metrics or examples to make this understandable, it will induce innovation stress. If they are then not given the time to figure this out or the resources with which to try to experiment with innovative solutions, then the innovation stress will worsen. What this means, in practice, is a vicious circle in which management keeps demanding innovation, stressing out their organizations, and as a result get less and less innovative thinking therein.

In this way, we can see how making more and more calls for innovation can in fact result in ‘less’ innovation, as stress takes over. This relates directly to ‘innovation fatigue’, which is my term for the sensation when talk of innovation starts to tire and exasperate people. As the innovation industry churns out more and more innovation theories, cases, models, canvases, and listicles, the full effect of this is not necessarily that people become energized, but the opposite. At a saturation point, innovation talk too can start making people less likely to engage with innovation.

So, what is a manager to do? In a situation where demanding more innovation from your organization might in fact deliver less of it, and talking about innovation at all might evoke fatigue, how can a manager turn this around? Thankfully, there are still ways to make innovation meaningful, and we can save innovation from the buzzwords and the clichés. In the following, I will outline some steps towards doing just this.

Creativity, the starting point of any innovative project, requires the capacity to focus on creative thinking, and this further requires time to do so.

become more innovative by talking less about innovation

A key problem in contemporary organizations is that many managers seem to think that they can nag their way to innovation. They continuously come back to demands for more of it, and stress their organizations by insisting on more and more innovation initiatives and by bringing in a seemingly never-ending parade of innovation consultants. The result of this is often that the organization is quite tired of such talk, and feels that it has become meaningless. If managers continuously talk about innovation, but in a way that makes the concept difficult to pin down–as in cases where everything, and thereby nothing, is referred to as an innovation–then the word ‘empties out’.

I have often been involved in cases where a company has lost sight of what real innovation means, simply by calling everything innovative or an innovation. This in turn makes the culture more prone to stress, as the demand to innovate becomes very vague and people do not know whether they are living up to demands or not. In such cases, managers need to understand that their innovation talk is part of the problem. My advice in such situations has been to think very seriously about when innovation is talked about, and how. By focusing on innovation only when it is meaningful, and using the term only to refer to truly important developments, you signal the organization that innovation actually means something and is not just a management buzzword. So, start by talking less, but smarter and clearer, about innovation.

solve stress first, and innovation will follow.

Stressed people rarely innovate, and it does not help if the thing that stresses them is innovation. Creativity, the starting point of any innovative project, requires the capacity to focus on creative thinking, and this further requires time to do so. If an organization is paralyzed by stress, such time for creative thinking is rarely, if ever, present, and no amount of commands from the management can change this. So, if you truly wish for your organization to be more innovative, then start by dealing with this key roadblock.

Make sure that people have the tools they need to do their work efficiently, and that there is enough slack in the organization to enable people to have time for ideation and for developing the ideas of others. Also make sure that innovation is not seen as a chore, a task to mechanically deliver on. Rather, emphasize the human side of innovation, the ways in which it allows people to explore and develop new sides in themselves. Remember to use employees who have presented an innovative idea or realized a new way of working as positive examples to be emulated. Develop a positive language around innovation, one that emphasizes achievements and creativity more than ‘disruption’ and survival.

develop an innovation purpose

Stress is not an automatic reaction to a demanding environment. On the contrary, if people feel that the work they do is meaningful, then they can often handle far greater workloads than if they do not. In my work with companies, I have looked to the reasons that develop innovation stress, and a key one is a loss of meaning. If a corporation becomes suffused in vague innovation talk, where ‘innovation for innovation’s sake’ becomes the norm, then it can create a fundamental sense of alienation in employees. They may feel that they are asked to innovate, but not told why this would be a desirable thing.

Managers, thus, need to be very clear what the deeper purpose with the company’s innovation strategy is. This should point to something greater than merely creating new profit centers or holding back competition. These are important issues for a company, but for them to materialize, you need employees who feel that it is meaningful and important to engage in innovation. This, again, is created by having a strong purpose, one that shows why innovation is meaningful. Be it feeding the world, helping to combat climate change, or simply creating a better world for children or the elderly, an innovation purpose can be a surprisingly efficient way to combat innovation stress. When people passionately want to innovate, stress rarely enters the picture.

If people feel that the work they do is meaningful, then they can often handle far greater workloads than if they do not.

For a manager today, it is not enough to just talk about innovation. In fact, sometimes innovation talk is the problem. A true innovation leader combats innovation stress and establishes an innovation purpose, and finds that the rest simply follows. Employees everywhere want to innovate, and freed from stress, they will.