Often when I speak to people about innovation, the first question I get is along the lines of “So how do you do it?. How can we do the same at our institution?”. In my opinion, no one has cracked the mystery of how innovative teams develop this core capability. No matter how many books or articles you read, there will always be a different perspective. This blog post provides my point of view.
When you are starting to embed innovation in a team, there are some factors you should consider to make the environment as conducive to innovative thinking as possible. Mixing up of people from multiple teams bring new perspectives. Breaking the traditional line management hierarchies allow people to speak up and communicate more efficiently. Having a mission, a shared set of values and associated behaviours provide the team with the core ingredients they will need during tough times.
Typically with the introduction of innovation to a group, there are three dimensions people are interested in. These are:
1. Problem solving
People would join in the innovation efforts because they want a resolution to a particular challenge. They may or may not have an idea on the solution to that problem. A shared insight and discussion from different people often bring out an elegant solution to their problem. Reaching an elegant solution is often enough, and their interest in innovative practices can diminish here or continue to grow based on the mission of the group and the advantages they may have seen in being part of the discussion.
2. Horizon scanning
People who are used to problem-solving often want to learn new ways for continuous improvement and better solutions. An approach towards this is to widen the circle of discussions within your group of innovators by bringing external ideas, people and products into the mix. We call this horizon scanning and stealing good ideas. The definition of innovation becomes synonymous with adaptability. A critical skill for any leader here is the capability and capacity development for all to adapt existing solutions in a particular environment.
3. Blue sky thinking
The next natural transition for innovators is towards blue sky thinking. Have you ever been in a brainstorming meeting where people would say, if we have no limits or boundaries, how would you proceed with this? In reality, there are always limits. They might be imposed by the organisation you work in, the environment you work in, the team you work in, or by yourself without realising it. It is not easy to break these limitations, and I would argue that you don’t need to completely. My perspective on blue sky thinking lies somewhere in the middle of advanced horizon scanning skills and open minded thinking. If you can develop thinking that can look at solutions in a different environment and see their potential in an entirely different situation, you are a blue sky thinker. Or more like a grey sky thinker if you live in the North West of England.
Before we talk about how to embed innovation, let us talk about the importance of knowing yourself in the context of innovation.
Before you delve into the world of innovation with high spirits, it is critical that you know what kind of innovator you want to be. What drives you and your passion for learning? Do you intend to be an innovator in policy, in practice, in technology, in analysis, a mixture of these or something else entirely? Does success mean that you achieve things yourself or that you do that through others? All of these factors play a role in how you ought to approach innovation regardless of what you do in your day-to-day job.
So what about the title of this blog post? What does “Explore, Reflect, Communicate, Repeat” mean here? In my opinion, this sets the foundations of innovation by introduction a framework that helps people to move away from problem-solving to horizon scanning domain. Let me elaborate on this further.
Exploration consists of three key elements. These are findability, reading, and curiosity.
Findability: Finding relevant, high-quality information is an essential requirement for horizon scanning. Being in a library environment and for some of us to be from a library background is beneficial as we already specialise in finding information. However, not many of us use the same skills for learning about the application of new ideas in our daily practices.
Reading: Finding the relevant information naturally leads to reading and understanding of that material. However, with our busy schedules, it is often not considered a priority to read up content to expand our knowledge outside of our subject domain. This thinking needs to change for innovation to flourish. Reading and reflection also go hand in hand. Often when you are reading other people’s perspectives, you reflect on them and consider their viewpoint for yourself, your team or your environment. You determine the applicability and determine whether you need to think more about something or whether it is a non-starter in the first place. You start the reflective thinking processes.
Curiosity: Curiosity underpins all innovation activities and creates a harmonious and productive team. Being curious, in this context, implies asking meaningful questions. Often we make statements to justify our view on something, whereas genuine questions allow us to listen to other viewpoints, reflect on how they make us feel, how they apply to the problem, and use this newly acquired knowledge to determine the best outcome for the problem. Asking questions requires balancing with sharing of your viewpoint and creating an environment where being inquisitive, curious, accepting and open is a norm.
Reflection is a crucial step of almost everything we do in our lives. It started for me in my early childhood when my mother used to tell me at every naughty thing I would do, “have you considered what you have just done?” Being in a fast-paced task-oriented work environment, especially in a non-leadership role, can curb your reflective instincts. The pace at which we work, often very problem-focussed, mean that we are continuously striving to finish things off without ever taking the time to reflect on what we have achieved, how we achieved it, and most importantly, why we achieved it.
Reflection is not an independent activity; it closely links with exploration activities. For me, reflection is often about letting my mind wander about what has been achieved in the past, who else is working on similar ideas, start reading (a lot) and adjusting my thinking based on what I learn. It is a non-systematic activity, at times, I will spend hours just exploring and at times, hours tweaking my thinking. What helps me is writing my thoughts down, and I will talk a bit more about this in the communicate section.
Reflection is also a key component of developing one’s leadership capabilities. As a leader, it is crucial that you have the ability to reflect on your decisions, how they impact on your team working lives, and beyond that. Reflection also links with curiosity, understanding people’s perspectives and connecting them with our thinking. Leadership is not what you do to people; it is what you do with them. Being a successful leader with an innovative thinking requires you to have qualities of exploration, reflection, communication and emotional intelligence. It also requires you to know yourself well, having shared set of values, and being authentic to yourself and in your leadership capacity.
Lack of communication is the most commonly reported frustration amongst many teams, at all levels of seniority. Most people think of communication as a downstream of information with occasional upstream passed to managers. From my point of view, communication has multiple layers of complexities.
I often associate the challenge of communication with the layers of an onion. The easiest and thinnest layer to peel is the external one, which relates to downstream elements of communication. Academic organisations or teams will create newsletters, mailing lists or websites to handle the complexity associated with this layer. As more layers are peeled off, they get thicker and challenging. Resolution of the more challenging issues requires active empowerment of your staff, for them to have the confidence to share their viewpoint and be heard. As you reach the core of the onion, the real issues are revealed. These are questions of culture, empowerment to not only share but question viewpoints, to exchange ideas openly and to have the confidence to develop those ideas into practical outcomes. A very common mistake here is to start working on the outer layers first, which results in short-term gains. It does not increase staff morale, it does not affect how they feel, it does not give them the confidence and empowerment that they deserve. It is crucial that we resolve the issues with the core first without which long-term success and loyalty are impossible.
So how does this relate to communication with innovation in mind? Thinking differently is crucial to establishing innovation in any organisation. Not having the right culture of communication can significantly hinder the process of shaping this difference of thinking into open discussions which lead to thoughtful and innovative outcomes. Shared values play a crucial role here as they underpin the debates and give everyone a common ground to reflect back upon.
I don’t think I need to say much here but success depends on continuously repeating the process till it becomes routine. Scientifically speaking, it takes 66 days for an average person to adopt a new habit and can range from 18 days to 300 days.