Restoring Innovation

Many verbs have been put in front of the word innovation, words like foster, promote, enhance, generate, cultivate, improve and imbed. They show up frequently in the literature and I’ve used them many times myself. However one word that I rarely see coupled with innovation in this way is one that I’ve come to realize may be the most appropriate; it’s the word “restore.”

“Restore?” You may ask, “Doesn’t that mean it must have already once existed?”

Exactly.

When someone starts a new business, innovation is a critical necessity. There are a thousand problems to solve and the answers are rarely obvious. The founders must identify what the product will be, who the customers are, what the correct price point is, how the product or service will be created and delivered, who to hire, how to market and sell, how to raise investment capital and on and on. A friend of mine with experience in the field of venture capital tells me that the typical new venture goes through an average of 3 or 4 iterations before turning a profit. The initial concept is rarely if ever successful without considerable modification.

Innovative and entrepreneurial are closely related concepts. Just as flexibility, experimentation, improvisation and problem solving are hallmarks of innovation, those things also define the successful entrepreneur. And it’s not just businesses that begin this way. I’m hard pressed to identify any organization public or private, business, non-profit or government, that wasn’t born of innovation. It’s so true that it’s almost a tautology.

So what happens to them? What happens to all these innovative organizations? (Not to mention the innovators?)

Simply put: They get lost.

As organizations mature, new people come in who weren’t there when all those problems were being solved. Those who were around tend to develop rather firm opinions about what will and won’t work based on those early experiences. The organization tends to become increasingly standardized and prescriptive. Quality and reliability and stability and consistent growth typically become the values most emphasized. So the organization tends to attract people who are most comfortable in that sort of established and predictable environment.

What so often gets left behind in this maturing process are the improvisation and problem-solving skills that are the true “meta-patterns” that drove the organization’s success in the first place. Ignoring those patterns often works fine for a while. If the social and financial and technological environment surrounding the business doesn’t change, it can continue on the same path indefinitely. However, that’s not the sort of world we live in anymore. That environment is constantly changing.

When people realize that the organization’s very existence is due to innovation, it makes achieving further innovation primarily a matter of renewal. Somewhere in the psyche of every business is that sense of adventure and exploration. Innovation may not need to be introduced from the outside as much as it needs to be rediscovered and amplified, just like the innate creativity we all possess—yet rarely use to its fullest potential.

Learning to be creative is largely a matter of rediscovering an innate ability and knowing how to get out of its way. To a great degree, the same is true of innovation. It needs to be continually restored.

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