Survey Results Offer a Fresh Look at Innovation

Innovation continues to be a topic of ongoing interest among HR and L&D professionals, because the ability to inspire it is crucial to a leader’s—and an organization’s—success.

We just completed a survey asking people their thoughts about innovation as well as its drivers and dampeners. More than 600 executives, managers, and individual contributors from a variety of industries shared their thoughts.

In a webinar coming up on November 15, I’ll be sharing the complete results. Here are some of the key takeaways I’ll be exploring.

Innovation is considered risky

One of the most striking findings was that a majority of respondents viewed innovation as inherently risky. In fact, 48% of executives—the people who are typically responsible for setting innovation priorities—held this view.

When managers and executives view innovation as risky and act on that belief by discouraging creative and experimental work, it has a powerful limiting effect across the organization. People imitate the behaviors of their leaders. Encourage innovation and your people will follow your example; view innovation as too risky and they will see it the same way.

It’s true that new, unproven innovation activities tend to have a lower success rate than ongoing activities. But the more important point is that not innovating and stagnating is far riskier than innovating and sometimes failing.

Consider the degree to which the innovative spirit might be suffering in your organization because of the belief that innovation is too risky. There are many ways to mitigate the risk and embrace innovation at all levels. (I’ll share one in just a minute.) None of us should forsake innovation in a world where change is so critical.

People overestimate their innovation skills

A second surprising finding in our data: Respondents rated themselves as being quite proficient at innovation. Across many innovation sub-skills such as identifying problems and opportunities to innovate, generating new ideas, and rolling out new solutions, self-ratings were higher than we expected. This is likely an example of the illusory superiority bias effect.

Here’s my analysis of it. The sub-skills required to innovate are commonly used in problem solving. For instance, most people know how to ask questions, prioritize, try new techniques, etc. But I believe the form and sequence of these actions in the innovation process is more specialized than people understand—and a little trickier than we appreciate.

Case in point: When the same respondents were asked to rate their organizations on how innovative they were, the scores were much lower. This indicates to me that the overall level of innovation proficiency is lower than people initially sense.

Workload pressure derails innovation

Life at work is often about managing evolving tasks and meeting deadlines—and not having enough time for much else. Our survey found that workload pressure is another top barrier to innovation. Across many survey questions, the high level of workload and subsequent limited amount of time remaining for innovation work were repeatedly blamed for the reduced time spent on innovation.

Managerial focus was called out as a problem area. Respondents described their managers’ primary focus as being on short-term goals. As a result, respondents reported that employees are under considerable stress to complete a significant amount of work each day. Any task that is seen as tangential to their work is quickly put to the side.

Individuals who are constantly feeling the demands of workplace pressure will not have the mental bandwidth to innovate. If they are asked to do so and the request exceeds their cognitive load capacity, they are likely to become frustrated, feel exhausted, and get angry. The reluctance to embrace innovation is due to cognitive load: the relative demand imposed by a particular task in terms of mental resources required.

We need to acknowledge that many people are already operating at or above their cognitive load capacity. Consider how to reduce that load when asking people to innovate.

An innovation hack: Encouraging experimentation

According to the survey, one of the most powerful things leaders and team members can do to foster innovation is to encourage people to experiment. 

Using the word experiment is key, because this word has positive connotations for many people; e.g., experiments seem fun. In addition, experiment conveys that the outcome is to learn as well as to make progress.

Experimentation is a powerful word and concept. An experiment will either produce a worthwhile innovation, create some progress toward that goal, or be a learning opportunity. This is a smart stance that fosters psychological safety.

Explicitly giving people permission to experiment is extremely important. Leaders need to explain that experimentation is a win-win proposition. The goal here is to inspire everyone to try new things and experiment actively in areas related to their role. This attitude creates an innovative culture. And when that takes root, an organization becomes dynamic and agile. It has the ability to reinvent itself as needed.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest! Interested in learning more? Join us for a free webinar on November 15.  I’ll be sharing the complete results of our Innovation Beliefs, Practices, and Realities Survey. We’ll also take a look at some of the ways you can encourage an innovative culture in your organization.  Use this link to join us!

About the Author

Jay Campbell

Dr. Jay Campbell is the Chief Product Officer for Blanchard, responsible for the development and management of the company’s portfolio of product offerings. He coordinates Blanchard’s research efforts on leadership topics, training effectiveness, and new content areas. Jay has degrees in Engineering and Economics from Vanderbilt University, an MBA from Boston College, and a Doctorate in Leadership and Organizational Change from the University of Southern California.

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