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The Paradox of Tools and the Innovation Culture

Posted on December 8, 2016
By Ben Wienlick

So, there’s this “thing” I’ve noticed when organizations want to bolster innovation. Whether it’s the public sector, non-profits or private Thing walking down streetbusinesses, when organizations set out on a path to get better at innovation, there’s this weird thing hanging around in the conversations about how to foster innovation. The “thing” is a hope that there is a secret tool for innovation or formula their employees could learn and when trained in it, innovation will automatically gush forth. I understand the “thing” and I hoped for a silver bullet as well when I started my research into what fosters relevant innovation in organizations.

This hope that there is a simple secret formula to innovation has a pattern. My experience is that when the pattern is understood a bit better we can recognize it and then build more robust approaches to fostering meaningful innovation. The pattern that keeps us hoping for simple solutions looks something like this…

  • Complexity and Overwhelm: People and organizations are overwhelmed with the pace of change and nature of challenges today. The overwhelm is marked by increased complexity, increased uncertainty and often not a lot of clarity around what the root causes of a challenge might be.
  • Humans Are Weird: Humans get weird when faced with uncertainty: As humans we’re not great at navigating uncertainty. Typically, when life gets complex and chaotic our weird response is to try to control it through power or superstitions. We can also find ourselves longing for simple answers and fixes. The dangerous thing is, the more uncertainty and complexity we experience, the more we can find ourselves insisting on oversimplified solutions and narrowly focusing just on what is familiar to us. To make things worse, it’s easy to take advantage of our human vulnerability with uncertainty and so we end up easily buying into quick fixes, oversimplified truths and tools to save us or make us better. When these short sighted solutions don’t work, we get disappointed, uncertainty increases and the search for a new silver bullet starts again. Too many of these disappointing cycles, and some really ugly stuff might arise. For instance, good people all of a sudden being open to fascist strong men with delusions that only they can fix a complex problem… But that’s a different post.

Now, I’m not trying to say that tools to foster innovative solutions are useless – they are important. I use innovation process tools, facilitate them, teach them and recognize they are an important part of the complex puzzle of fostering relevant innovation. The point I want to make is that we won’t create lasting innovation in our organizations if all we do is focus on getting our employees trained up in tools like Design Thinking, Social Lab processes, Strategic Foresight, CPS (Osborne-Parnes Creative Problem Solving), Lego Serious Play or any other tool of innovation.

If organizations are truly serious about innovation, then the leadership in it needs to recognize the importance of investing in both tools of innovation and the longer term and tougher work of building and strengthening a culture of innovation. Why? One reason is that all innovations have a shelf life and if we get too attached to sustaining one innovation that was successful in the past, we will be unable to see opportunities and stay relevant. If we strengthen our culture of innovation, we can keep adapting and innovating as our innovations rise and fall with the needs of the people we serve and the trends of the time.

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Articles, Community Innovation, Complexity

Ben Wienlick

By Ben Wienlick

Ben Weinlick, MA is the founder of Think Jar Collective. Ben is always looking at how he can help diverse disciplines and domains to collide because often it is through that, that powerful insights and relevant innovations can emerge.

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