How tension helps build innovation

Authors Andrew and Gaia Grant reveal the surprising paradox behind how to instil innovation more effectively

About the authors

Andrew and Gaia Grant are co-authors of the new book The Innovation Race: How to Change a Culture to Change the Game, along with the international bestseller Who Killed Creativity?... And How Can We Get It Back?

Andrew is the CEO of Tirian and a professional speaker and facilitator. Gaia is the Managing Director of Tirian, and is also researching the paradox theory for innovation culture and sustainability at Sydney University Business School.

"So who wins?”

This is the first question we have often been asked since we released our latest book The Innovation Race.

After 25 years of global travel to explore the state of innovation, and several years of doctoral research on the topic – including over 30 interviews with heads of innovation from a range of organisations, and in-depth case studies on the process of innovation – it has been reinforced for us that there is no simple answer.

Many organisations today seem to assume that there are a few innovation ingredients that can make all the difference. They think that mimicking Google’s canteen and campus model, or constructing a purpose-built innovation lab will automatically lead to better innovation. We have talked with a number of companies who have learnt the hard way that taking actions like these may end up being superficial measures rather than sustainable solutions.

The good news is that though there may not be any shortcuts to innovation success, some clear practical principles have emerged from our research. These principles are not just found in the latest successful technology companies, they can be found in a range of cultures going back over thousands of years. If navigated effectively, these principles can provide guidelines for sustainable innovation.

Before we delve into these principles, it will be important to recognise why innovation is so essential to prepare for the journey ahead.

Innovation is not an optional extra

Organisations that innovate better have been found to perform better overall. Innovative organisations are more productive (up to 50% more), have better employee engagement, and experience higher decision-making effectiveness.

The current fast-paced and constantly-evolving environment means that innovation can no longer be an optional extra. It must now become an essential core competency for any contemporary organisation. Yet many individuals and organisations think they can simply sit out the ‘race’.

Rather than taking the passive position of the armchair viewer, the savvy leader recognises that inaction can too easily lead to elimination. Leaders need to become actively engaged “travellers” who are prepared to explore global practices and learn from other countries and companies in order to uncover the otherwise elusive inherent treasures.

Some surprising, paradoxical principles

The study of global innovation maps reveals that some countries and companies have thrived over the ages, while others have floundered. Distilling the key core principles of the global survivors can lead to surprising results.

Around 60 years ago, some researchers identified cultures that produced an unusual concentration of creative geniuses. These “creativogencic” cultures have popped up in different locations over time, such as during the Renaissance period in Europe. They reveal some important cultural principles.

The nine principles identified by these researchers indicated that an openness to new ideas was critical. As examples, democratic politics and a ready access to diverse sources of information were found to be important. Yet more recent research has demonstrated that the antithesis of these factors is also just as important. So while openness is valuable, being able to focus and specialise is also critical to innovation success.

Our key finding is that good innovation actually requires both of these contradictory yet interrelated elements:

  • The Exploration Mindset to move ahead for breakthrough innovations that will help to solve demanding challenges; a focus on openness to exploring new ideas for growth; and
  • The Preservation Mindset to ensure there is stability and a firm foundation to build on for growth: a focus on maintaining current systems and structures for stability.

By avoiding the typical swing between one state and the other, the “polar positioning” strategy reveals how it is possible to escape oscillation, compromising, and sidelining of important innovation factors. Effectively balancing both simultaneously produces a creative dynamic that fuels innovation and ensures it is sustainable over the long term.

Finding the ideal balance

Every individual, team and organisation needs both perspectives.

We need the open-minded mindset to empathise, imagine, and ideate in order to come up with the most creative ideas, and we also need the more stable mindset to help test, prototype, ground, and implement these ideas as innovations.

We need to incorporate a balance of the best principles from all cultures that do well on innovation measures, all of which come from different perspectives. Real world examples could include: the empathy of the Scandinavian culture, the ideas optimism of the Americans, the dedication to process excellence of the German culture, the commitment to follow through of the Japanese culture, the collaboration seen in Asian cultures, and the inventiveness of the Indian mindset.

It is possible to better prepare a culture for innovation by identifying individual and team preferences and looking for strengths and challenges. Try the five-minute quiz Innovative Change Leader profile tool at www.the-innovation-race to identify potential growth areas. Which side of the paradoxical pairing do you gravitate towards? Are you more of an Explorer or Preserver?

And how innovation ready are you and your organisation?  

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