If your business does not innovate, it is not your fault …
We often think that if an organization does not innovate, it is because its management is bad. Logically enough, we deduce that innovation training will solve the problem. This is not entirely wrong, but it is still more complicated: very often, the reason why an organization does not innovate, it is on the contrary because it is too well managed. It is this good management that prevents innovation. Without the awareness of this paradox, the solutions tried will fail.
It is a very classic case, that of a successful company which does not succeed in innovating and which contacts me to organize a training so that its executives are more innovative. Before the training, I find out about the company’s results. These are excellent. In a very competitive industrial sector, it succeeds in maintaining its margins with a portfolio of prestigious and very demanding clients. Its leaders tell me they take innovation very seriously. An innovation director has just been appointed, and a large, ultra-modern center dedicated to innovation has just been opened, complete with its design rooms, fab lab and its internal incubator. An ideas competition is now organized every year. And of course the inevitable learning expeditions are required.
The imperative to innovate is hammered out by the new CEO at the slightest opportunity. And yet nothing happens, or not much. “It is essential to train our managers in innovation»The HRD tells me. “They are good managers, but they cannot get out of their daily routine despite our encouragement and our incentives»She adds. Internally, frustration is mounting. Despite its exhortations and investments, management sees nothing coming and suspects managers of dragging their feet or being incompetent. Managers, for their part, are aware of what is at stake but are unable to get out of their daily lives and resent management’s suspicions. A certain fatalism develops: “Perhaps we are incapable of innovating, it is like that; there is not much we can do.“
Well yes, there is plenty to do. This company suffers from a classic evil, and above all inevitable in a large company, and that with Béatrice Rousset in our work Strategy Model Mental we call conflict of engagement.
Conflict of engagement
The company has a sincere commitment to innovation. All its executives tell you: if we do not innovate, we will lose our competitive advantage because our industry is moving a lot and very quickly. It is the No. 1 subject of HRD which is struggling to recruit because the company’s image is deteriorating; it looks like a business of the past. Performing certainly, but old-fashioned, it does not dream of the young graduates it needs so much to renew itself. Everyone in the company is for innovation, and yet nothing is happening.
During the seminar, I ask participants to give me a list of everything that prevents them from innovating. It doesn’t take very long. “We don’t have a free minute, we have to justify everything, every minute of our time.“”When I am done looking after all my clients, the week is over.“”We must constantly put out fires – delay on a client project, call for tenders, etc.. ” “the only thing that matters is to cut costs – nothing else interests management.“Etc. The column seriously destroys the atmosphere, and in the room the conclusion seems clear. It is always a crucial moment in this exercise: once the participants have listed everything that prevents them from achieving a sincere goal, here innovation, morale takes a big hit. “We are not very good,” sums up one of the participants.
To which I answer no, not at all, on the contrary. Because we can look at this list from a different perspective: I point out to them that all they describe in this list, what they actually do, is why their business is doing so well today. It has indeed developed a very strong culture focused on execution, iron discipline, drastic cost control, daily performance monitoring, a quarterly performance horizon (it is an American company listed on the stock exchange). ), a frenzied hunt for waste (the margins are played to the penny because some of its products only cost a few dollars). And it works, the results have been there, quarter after quarter, for several years. This result is all the more remarkable given that the company, which is a hundred years old, was almost defunct fifteen years ago. The participants are very proud of it, and I agree with them. The room is again full of energy. We spend several minutes celebrating this success, and then I stress, but it is obvious, the importance of preserving it. A relaxation would jeopardize the enviable competitive situation that has been created. Everyone nods.
This company therefore has a sincere commitment to preserving its current performance, and therefore very logically in what allows this performance, in this case and to simplify, a logic of cost control. Everything that these managers in the room do is done to sincerely respect this commitment.
Here we are, I point out to them: you have, on the one hand, a sincere commitment to the need to innovate – you know it is vital – but you also have a sincere commitment to preserving current performance. -it’s also vital. There are therefore two sincere commitments. Gold these two commitments are in conflict: preserving current performance makes innovation impossible while it would jeopardize current performance. You don’t have to be a genius to know that between the two, it is always the current performance that will prevail, which is why despite a sincere commitment to innovation, the preference will always go, de facto, towards current performance. And that is why the company does not innovate.
There is no villain, incompetent or guilty
What is important here, and which deeply marked the participants, as well as the HRD seated at the back of the room, is that there is no villain, no culprit or dark cabinet. There is no incompetence. There is no lack of method. If they don’t innovate, it’s not because they are useless, resistant to change, out of date, lazy, incompetent or that they put their own best interests ahead of the company’s. There can be some like that, of course, but it’s rare and it’s not the root cause. We can therefore leave the adversarial posture in which the management reproaches its executives for not innovating while they reproach it for preventing them. We know that such a posture is the first obstacle to change. Yet it is classic.
It is therefore no one’s fault, except for a state of affairs which has developed quite naturally and which we must be able to change. For this, we will put the conflict clearly on the table, to transform it into object, the first condition for it to be manageable. Instead of naming a culprit, we can now say “Given the conflict we have between two sincere commitments, how can we move forward to resolve this one?As we observe in Strategy Model Mental, changing the way you define the question (the underlying mental model) is to give yourself a chance to solve the problem.
Resolving this conflict will not be easy, of course, but highlighting it allows us to get out of the blockage and at least provides a working basis on which everyone can easily agree, not to mention the fun that ‘there may be something to say “owl, let’s resolve this conflict that comes from being super strong. ” As deadly atmospheres develop in organizations frozen in the face of disruption, this is important and is an integral part of the ability to get back into motion.
On the notion of conflict of engagement, introduced by researchers Kegan and Lahay, see my article Immunity to change: those rational commitments that prevent innovation. In a context of organizational transformation, see also What blocks your organizational transformation are your mental models. The conflict of commitment is very often resolved unconsciously in the organization by means of priorities. See my article on this subject: Management is not about choosing options, it’s about setting priorities.
The notion of mental model and its importance in individual, organizational and societal transformation is developed in the book Strategy Model Mental co-written with Béatrice Rousset.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.