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We need to ban the word Innovation

Today is the World Day of Innovation and Creativity, and to mark this annual celebration I’d like to propose that we ban the word Innovation.

There is a belief in the corporate world that innovation is some kind of mystical process, known only to a select few. These high priests of innovation live different lives from the rest of us. They get to grow untidy beards and wear hoodies, they get to meet inspiring entrepreneurs and attend cool sounding conferences – like Slush and SxSW.

Whilst it is true that some of us have beards and almost certainly have questionable dress sense, the only difference between people working in innovation and those who don’t is what’s on our business cards.

There is no doubt that companies need to develop new ways of answering their customer’s challenges, of creating better and more efficient internal processes and finding better methods to engender healthy and inclusive workplaces.

There is a concern that historic failure to answer these challenges is indicative of a lack of ideas from within. This leads companies to look to ‘innovation experts’ to create new products or services.

This is a fallacy. No organisation in the whole of human history lacks ideas. I’m willing to bet cash money that everyone working their departments (whether they are new to the role or experienced veterans) has looked at what they’re doing and thought “I think this could be done better”, “I wonder if there’s a tool that can make this job more efficient” or “We should really be selling [insert new product] this to our customers”.

Everyone has ideas. The question is, what does the organisation do with them?

How an organisation handles ideas from their employees will dictate whether or not they can claim to be innovative.

If company culture is what happens when the CEO walks out of the room, then Innovation Culture is what happens when an idea is voiced. How a manager or management team react to an employee with a new idea has a profound impact on the cultural attitude to innovation in a company – not just for the person with the idea, but for everyone.

4 ways to kill an idea.

1 – Don’t engage with it.

When an employee puts together a proposal for a new way of doing things, the best way of killing the idea stone dead is to not take time to listen and discuss it.

Managers who are generous with their time and can listen without judgement whilst asking the right kind of questions (see next point) will find that their subordinates are full of great ideas.

Sit back, yawn, dismiss based on preconceptions rather than real data – then you’ll be able to kill the idea instantly.

2 – Kill it with questions

Questions can be used as a weapon. This is a great strategy for killing an idea whilst seeming to be interested in it.

The key thing here is that, by asking ever more detailed questions about an untested idea, you can eventually find a reason not to attempt it. This is somewhat related to the next point – except you can kill the idea before you even define the criteria for success by creating a strawman argument to weed out a new idea using hypotheticals.

To encourage ideas, we need to allow them to be tested. Sometimes this means focusing on the core of it and avoiding the trap of trying to make the proposal do too much. This is setting it up for failure before it even begins.

3 – Use the wrong measures of success

If the proposal is (for example) seeking to improve customer experience, then don’t use revenue as the main basis for judging whether the idea should be tested. The main measurement of success should be looking at whether the idea improves the customer experience.

Part of the process of bringing an idea to life is planning how we can measure its success. By being clear from the outset what constitutes a successful trial/test/proof of concept.

4 – Dismiss it because it doesn’t fit with your preconceptions of what innovation looks like in your field

Just because an idea doesn’t involve the latest IoT, blockchain or AI technology, it doesn’t mean that its impact might not be great.

It’s also true that great ideas can move a business into new areas – for this to happen the ideas themselves might not be recognisably part of the existing business. (Think Amazon dominating the cloud computing market).

This is where diversity of experience is important. If we view ideas through the lens of our own experience and preconceptions, then we’re shutting the door on anything we don’t understand. New ideas, by definition, should be things we ourselves didn’t think of.

Lyreco Innovation

The role of our team in Lyreco is not to create new ideas. We will not come up with the next disruptive technology or the latest product that will revolutionise the world of workplace supplies.

Lyreco is a company with over 10,000 employees. If every person in the company only has one idea every 4 years (which is frankly absurd), that means that we are missing out on 2500 ideas a year. Or 48 new ideas every week.

On this annual day of Innovation and Creativity, I would like to remind everyone that we are a company of ideas.

Every person I have ever met in Lyreco has a perspective on how we could be doing things differently. Some of these people are lucky enough to work with managers who recognise this and want to give them the opportunity to explore their ideas. Many more of us have at some point experienced one of the 4 ways to kill an idea, and maybe this will prevent us from trying in the future.

This is a problem, but it’s not impossible to fix.

We all need to get better at listening, respecting and supporting our colleagues with their creativity. Our team is here to support anyone in Lyreco and our sister companies who has an idea. This support could be as simple as providing a non-judgemental forum for you explore your idea or it could be to provide help with finding the right people in the company to help you move it forward.

Why do we need to ban the word innovation? Mainly because its use suggests that there are people who can do it and there are people who can’t.

In reality, everyone can have ideas – what we need is for all of us to get better at supporting each other. That’s the real innovation.


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