Guest Post by Rob Long

A tourist walks up to a New Yorker and asks how to get to Carnegie Hall. The New Yorker replies, “Practice.” It’s a fitting analogy to the common question, “How do we build innovation into our culture?”

I’d say three things to that question. The first is to accept that innovation is hard work and not believe it is something you simply stroll into. The second is to recognize and respect that innovation is primarily a social term, not a technical term. The third is that you must have a strategy to start stopping things.

Doing Less Better

A strategy to start stopping things disrupts the status quo. That’s its chief purpose. Somewhere behind the scenes of abandonment is the question of mindsets, and that means disrupting cultural assumptions. We tend to associate financial growth through innovation as adding to the pile. But after a while, the weight of maintaining everything that’s there soaks up your creative possibilities. The whole idea of innovation is directly related to the concept of renewal, the principal ingredient of which is abandonment.

In the book Do Less Better, John Bell says—insists!—more isn’t always more. But doing less better becomes extraordinarily difficult for most managers to even talk about. It raises the obvious question, “Why is this so hard for us?” The answer sounds quite different if we turn down the frequency on “hard” and improve the resonance of “us.”

Psychology of Innovation

Beyond its financial realities, innovation is important for psychological reasons. The way you create a vibrant culture for innovation is to engage the creativity, energy and commitment of every individual in the enterprise. In this way, I like to use the word grace. Grace is about leaders giving individuals freedom to become what they are not now. It is about giving people opportunities to use their skills, try new things, and stretch their limits. Grace is about dignifying the future expression of potential.

People who work for the expression of potential see important needs to be met, want to work in a values-based setting, expect their gifts to be properly used, and are ready to hold themselves accountable. They demonstrate a motivation to work that draws from an understanding of and commitment to a common good—by which I mean a grace that touches everyone. Such people are indispensable.

When work is an opportunity for discovering and shaping the place where the self meets new needs, it becomes clear that organizations never reach their potential without regard for individuals’ potential. What would grace enable your organization to become?

The Role of Leadership

To add value to your assets, you need a vision of where you’re taking the enterprise. You have to paint a clear picture of your destination and the route. That may require a total transformation of the culture, especially when past practices and assumptions forestall growth.

Successful leaders of such journeys know that innovation isn’t about being a genius. It’s about being conscientious. They know how to look from the outside in, challenge the status quo, spot and cultivate talent, and move proactively. They translate their vision of what could be into a teachable point of view.

This has four elements:

Ideas — the products, services, markets, channels, or customers that are going to be most important.
Values — the behaviors and ideals that support those business ideas.
Emotional energy — the drive, clearly communicated to everyone, to create positive outcomes.
Constraint — engagement in the organization that allows teams to make tough yes-or-no tradeoffs.

A teachable point of view, grounded in an understanding of your mission, also helps you say no to people, practices, and opportunities that no longer add value to the work of the organization. Such leaders demonstrate another lesson: that when an organization is growing, its people are too. For their organizations, innovation is always a tool for realizing potential, never an end in itself.

Guest Post

Rob LongRob Long is Founder and Managing Director of CoVenture Consulting, a team design and innovation consulting firm helping companies to grow and create a less confusing future. He lives in Houston.