I love innovation, don't I? or Sustaining Innovation, Creating Non-Profit and Government Organizations that Innovate Naturally

This was an interesting read, although it may be long given some of our schedules at this time in the semester. Given that and my penchant, and love for, doing something different, I will give a brief synopsis and then I would love to attempt to seek your input in a slightly different way.

Synopsis - A study completed in 1994. The Surviving Innovations Project. Wonderful stories. Some excellent points made and lessons learned. A couple of quotes from the conclusion, "Innovativeness...is so much easier with leaders who care most about the soil in which innovation and ordinary good practice grow..." and, "What greater expression of heroism could there be in a society fixated on individual glory than to submerge oneself for the public good?"

I included the quotes as a preface to what I hope will be an interesting online discussion. I hope that you had a chance to read some of this piece but if not, I hope that you will still take the chance to participate. The author categorized the lessons/leadership practices learned from the 1994 study into ten areas, I would like to have you pick at least one and define it based either on the reading or your own thoughts and impressions. If you have one, please include an anecdote, personal or otherwise, to support your definition.

The top ten leadership practices - 1. Change the leader's work. 2. Be clear who decides. 3. Issue a call for ideas. 4. Give the permission to fail. 5. Communicate to excess. 6. Pay attention to sequencing. 7. Teach the organization how to say no and why to say yes. 8. Keep faith and intuition alive. 9. Stay balanced. 10. Keep innovation in perspective.

To facilitate our discussion I would like to post an example.

Be clear who decides = A lighthouse. When sailors are sailing on dangerous shores or attempting to find safe harbors during inclement weather lighthouses have provided guidance to help them remain on course. Similarly, when it is clear who decides in organizations who want to naturally innovate clear guidance on mission, vision and direction allow them to stay on course.

Have fun with the definitions, I am looking forward to your thoughts.


I would like to discuss #5 Communicate to Excess. People say this a lot, and at first glance it seems simple enough. More communication is better. But what I've found is that it is not simply over-communicating that works it is learning to communicate differently over time and with different individuals. What I mean is that it is important when to know when you need to communicate via e-mail, on the phone, or in person. There are many things that influence the type of communication including what the message is, who is delivering and receiving the message, and many other factors. I think it is important to communicate in a variety of ways and to reinforce previous messages in a different format on an on-going basis so that people understand what is being communicated from many different perspectives. Long messages delivered in a formal setting may need to be backed up or prepped with more "sound bite" types of messages that reinforce key points. Also, the communication always needs a feedback mechanism so that those receiving the message understand how to respond, ask clarifying questions, etc. The feedback can be formal or informal or both.

Communicating to excess doesn't really get at what I think is really communicating in different methods and styles to account for things like how people receive information differently, the type of message being delivered, whether this is the first time the message has been communicated and if it has changed.

Communicating is important, but it is an iterative process that evolves over time according to the specific need.

Per Blog - "I would like to have you pick at least one and define it based either on the reading or your own thoughts and impressions. If you have one, please include an anecdote, personal or otherwise, to support your definition".

Based on the reading, I would like to pick "Give Permission to Fail".

Timely! I am currently on a 3-county grant writing team (of 3 individuals) for two extremely large grants, which will total about $1.5 million dollars if funded. Each team member's grant writing strengths vary. There are two seasoned writers and one barely average writer. Currently, the average writer is experiencing an inferiority complex because his work is being modified by the strong writers. He naturally does not have a strong enough personality to speak up, so continues to feel singled out by the other team members. His behavior is making everyone uncomfortable. To worsen the situation, he would rather not be working on either of these grants - his passion isn't in it.

I am a very strong, confident individual - so this is a tough one for me. I thrive on open, honest, back and forth dialogue. Of course it doesn't feel good to have a team member confront me on a weakness of mine. But, when this happens, I try to "pause, listen, accept and improve". This would not work with my peer - an introvert. So the question is, does the grant team accept his less than adequate work and thus accept the possibility of failure - not getting funded? If we don't accept his work, do we then get accused of trying to "take over"?

Is there an ideal way to approach the situation, such as "communicate to excess"? If so, what (and how) do we communicate? The grant team does try to communicate "kudos" when appropriate (not often). But it is not in my nature to give kudos where they don't belong - this does not serve anyone. Help! Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

P.S. Through the process of this blog I have come up with a solution for "next time". I will suggest we come up with grant writing team "norms" - discuss our strengths and weaknesses as a writer and proceed. However, this isn't going to help us now!

I like your creative approach to this, Mick.

I would like to address the fourth practice from Paul Light’s reading, “Give the permission to fail.” For my example of a definition, I think of President Lincoln’s faith in General Grant during the U.S. Civil War. Although the “what,” which was ultimate victory, was not optional for Lincoln or Grant, the options for “how” to win the war were considerable. Grant had little political ambition at the time, had little concern for his public image, and often blended in with lower ranking officers due to his appearance. Lincoln was desperate for a leader who would push forward strategically in spite of political implications. Lincoln gave Grant permission to lead and, though Grant suffered failures in terms of casualties, the desired outcome was achieved. The faith Lincoln placed in Grant’s long-term strategies allowed Grant to persevere over his short-term losses.

I want to take a slightly different view of this from my own experiences: What happens when a creative person is not given permission to fail?

A well-respected colleague of mine was always coming up with innovative ideas and was the kind of leader that people in the organization were naturally drawn to through his energy and humor. His last endeavor did not go so well and he wound up leaving the company on a sour note. Some people even suspected that his last assignment was scuttled by limited resources in order to create the scenario that sparked his resignation. This would be the other extreme of giving permission to fail.

One serious problem with not giving permission to fail is that you may drive away the creative personalities that every organization depends upon for innovative growth. The creative thinkers who are left may refuse to offer new ideas. Furthermore, any new hires with great potential will likely leave to find an organization that will appreciate their energy and creative thought.

Permission to fail is critical to innovation and growth and it can also plays a role in failure.

7. Teach the organization how to say no and why to say yes...

The goals and priorities of an organization may change from one strategic plan to the next strategic plan, but the mission often remains unchanging. If the mission is the road map to creating a positive change for the future, it is important for an organization to stick to what it is best at. That doesn't mean innovation is not part of that - but one organization cannot be all things to all people. Chasing the funding streams should not imply that an organization recreates itself with every proposal. There are times when it is clear that no is the correct answer - if the strategy is too far off course, or far above the team’s current knowledge and capabilities. And there are times when saying yes to complimentary lines of business is the best approach. Leadership is demonstrated by a clearly communicated vision for the organization’s future.

I will tackle "Issue a Call for Ideas". This practice has become increasingly important in my professional life recently as fresh ideas have been force fed from the top as "here is how I want you to do this differently".

Issuing a call for ideas is nothing more than creating a culture in your organization that understands that "this is the way we have always done it" is not an acceptable answer when asked why something is done. As the authors pointed out about the Phoenix group, this call for new ideas can go too far. Accepting every new idea can result in mission creep or losing focus on the objective. Not all traditional practices are outdated and need to be changed. At the same time, things can be improved and tweaked to become more effectiv and people need to know that their bosses encourage them to look at their practices and search for new ways to get things done. The authors state that the challenge is to create an environment where the ideas will be welcomed and given a fair hearing. This is essentially creating an environment where new ideas are discussed and bosses have proven that they will approve change.

Keep innovation in perspective. Light equates this with knowing when to stop.

In the study, one-third of organizations had a goal of stopping innovation when it became the prevailing wisdom. I think that this is a short-sighted vision of what innovation is all about. Organizations who adopt this strategy would do well to keep in mind that their original innovation challenged the prevailing wisdom. Thus, innovation, in reality, should be a cycle. This goes back to the discussion on “sequencing,” which I think could be more accurately positioned as an iterative cycle/circle. If they “stop” innovating, they will be right back where they started, except with a little different scenario.

One-third of organizations took a “never stop” approach to innovation. It would be interesting to see how many of these organizations represented the arts. I can’t imagine any governmental entity taking this approach. I think that it takes a certain type of organization to be successful with this approach. I know that some of my staff think that I take a never stop approach, and it exhausts them!

The final third of organizations perceived innovation as a single reactive kind of thing. It also seemed to me that most of them took what they knew or had experienced in different settings and applied it in a new setting or in a different way. According to the Light’s definition of innovation, this wasn’t really innovation and these organizations didn’t think that they were being innovative. It would also surmise that these organizations didn’t really stop with a single act. They probably took an innovative approach to many things but each of these things was perceived as a single act.

In my experience, an organization is better at innovating when it employs people who come from a variety of personal and work backgrounds. By working in other jobs, in other organizations, and in other industries, people are better able to see situations that could be improved upon and to offer “new and innovative” ways of doing so. The experience and wisdom that they gained in these other environments can be applied to the new environment if they think about the situation in different way.

For instance, I have bounced between business and education my entire professional career. My first professional job was in sales. Then I got a masters in HRD. The only way I could get a job in training and development was to go into sales training. I was able to bring the perspective of a sales person into my role as trainer. Then I took a job in marketing and admissions for a degree completion program. I was able to do “innovative” things to market the program because I had both the marketing and education background. The things that I did that were innovative were innovative in a university environment, but not in a corporate or business environment. I did the “bounce back and forth” a few more times before I started my current job. Because I have worked for several different types of organizations, I am able to take lessons learned, best practices, etc. from those experiences and apply them as “innovative” solutions to challenges in my current job.

Rather than “knowing when to stop,” I think that “keeping innovation in perspective” means knowing that you have to be diligent in being aware of when innovation is necessary, how much is necessary, and ready to take action.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs