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Innovation: Choose to break out of your box

Innovation: Choose to break out of your box

  • 05 June 2014
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

We are living and working at high speed and amidst overwhelming volumes of information, stuff, deadlines, targets and possibilities as well as threats. It struck me again as I was working with a client organization the other day. This executive team somehow managed to take a few days off for reflection and the adjustment of their strategy. One of their main goals was to reinforce their innovativeness as an organization. They still are and always have been a cutting edge market leader in a rather technical market – but the entrepreneurial spirit, their innovative mindset seems to dilute slightly lately...

While we discussed their current culture and the future culture they need to stay innovative and relevant in this fast-changing world, I immediately experienced their results-oriented culture. It was the end of their second day and it was hot outside as well as inside. They were tired but they engaged fully. When I suggested a break, they waved the possibility away. They wanted to move on, they could handle it. They took an extra glass of water, grabbed an apple or spent some time standing up instead of sitting, but on they went!

I was impressed by their work ethic and I enjoyed discussing strategy and culture with this driven team. They engaged fully, explored their current and preferred culture and started brainstorming about ways to stir innovation again. We used the four archetypes of culture from Cameron & Quinn’s Competing Values Framework. This organization has a high score on two culture types especially: the results-oriented, competitive Market culture and the creative, entrepreneurial Adhocracy culture – and of course they wanted to keep both these strengths. Achieving results and creating innovations.


But as mindfulness and Zen teachers such as Leo Babauta tell us: we can only do one thing with full attention. We’re at our best when we single-task. That’s what I like about the Competing Values Framework. The values and associated behaviors are competing – even though you want and eventually need them all. But you can’t have them all at the exact same moment.

With each thing you do, you have to decide what you prioritize: whether you focus on the task or on the person, on the procedure or the experiment, whether you look at your competitors or at your company units, whether you aim for stability or flexibility.

You can value innovation – but you can’t guarantee continuous top results at the same time. It’s either/or. You have to have faith in your developers or R&D or technical front-line people and leave them. If you take away their budget after 6 weeks because you get nervous about the lack of direct results or if you put them under pressure to develop an innovation before Friday 5 P.M. – you’re undermining innovation. They need free space to explore, discover and innovate. The results-orientation hinders an innovation-orientation.

You choose: either focus on results now – or on innovation. But not both at the same time. It’s a recipe for dilution, distraction, confusion, frustration and mediocre outcomes in either field. It’s spreading yourself too thin. It’s like trying to walk in two directions – the right leg going forward, the left leg going to the left. You’ll get further and enjoy more energy and progress when both legs are moving forward to one goal. After that one, you can change your focus and goal again and choose another direction for the next period.

Got yourself jammed in an and & and box?

That’s what this executive team discovered in that hot room: pushing for results was hindering their innovativeness. However admirable they were handling the pressure, the challenges, the results and the overload. It wasn’t the best culture anymore for new sparks and ideas. It was time to explore new spaces...

Deep down, they wanted to keep it all and I recognize this tension very well. Most of us don’t want to choose. Why can’t we have it all right now? They wanted to be a super competitive market leader with excellent results as well as a top innovator in their field (just to keep up with the pace of their technological market). They also wished to add more attention for their people and lower the cost in some areas, too... Ambitious goals, while they were already juggling projects, trying to multi-task and cramming more into the box. How can you think out of the box when it’s so stuffed that you can’t even get out yourself? No free space – no time to breathe – you’re jammed together with and, and, and, and, and, in that box.

Choose to break free

Choosing is losing – we use to say. Or, is it? I start to see how not-choosing leads to losing. Not just within the Competing Values Framework – when organizations work on their desired leadership, culture, strategy and change. I see it in any area of life and work.

When you choose, you lose the other options immediately. But in the long run, you reinforce your skills, your energy and your achievements because you invest them in one direction, where you can make more of a difference. When you don’t choose, you keep your options open and lose nothing right away. But you may become unclear to yourself and others, you start to move in all directions, spreading your skills, contacts, energy and achievements over many interests. You may not make an impact in any of them. It’s so-so, a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s neither flesh nor fish, as we say in Dutch. You may lose much more in the long run...

Choosing is not easy. It takes time, practice and the peace of reflection. You need some space inside your box to be able to maneuver yourself think outside of the box and consciously choose. But let’s be courageous. Throw out what’s keeping you from making clear choices. Whether you’re an organization or a person. Choose who you want to be.

Marcella Bremer

PS: In issue 8 of Leadership & Change Magazine, we discuss innovation based on the book “The idea-driven organization” by Schroeder and Robinson. We learn more about culture from Tim Kuppler’s interview with Edgar Schein. Marilee Adams distinguishes between the learner and the judger mindset (guess which one you need for innovation) and Leo Babauta teaches how to focus (The Power of Less) and how to build new habits. Rowena Morais encourages us to pursue our dream job while Leslie Yerkes discusses workplace bullying – the opposite of an innovative, learning environment.

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