Unlocking the Innovation Spirit

Innovation is a life-changing experience.  It does not matter if the project was the start of a whole new business or the ‘simple launch of a new soup’. When a company innovates, something special happens. By ‘starting something new’ people inside change the storyline of the company they work for. And in that process, they tap into the full potential of themselves and their organization. When teams reflect on such a successful innovation journey, you may still hear that ‘unlocked energy’ in the tone of their voices, and see reflections of a great and deep emotion twinkling in their eyes. Would it not be great if we could develop more of such inspiring adventures?

I am afraid that most managers do not want to look at innovation in this ‘spiritual’ way. They regard innovation as an essential activity to deploy their corporate strategy, and will focus on management tools to pull off new initiatives: creativity sessions, stage gate processes, business cases, etc. All very valuable in their own right, but ‘if innovation management processes would be all there is to innovation, why are not more companies much more innovative?’ [1] In the end, innovation is shaped by human initiative and interaction, and not by management processes. If companies want to become more innovative, they will need to find ways to tap into the human energy behind innovation initiatives. But how can you do that?

In many running businesses, human passion and inspiration is locked behind behavior patterns that strengthen the current company story and structure. Management targets, the organization structure, and the dynamics of today’s business determine the day-to-day behavior. Innovative initiatives are generally regarded as disturbances: they take the eye off the current business, and require management to re-shuffle priorities and positions. Leaders of innovative initiatives intuitively feel this tension, and turn their back on the running business. Instead, they focus on initiatives that do not interfere too much with the existing hierarchy and patterns, and therefore will never change the storyline of the company they work for.

The innovation leader will need to find a way to tap into the passion and spirit of his team members to inspire them to jointly start a journey with an uncertain outcome – to become a community of ‘actors’. In an innovation team, people share an insight and a vision about the future, and understand which individual role they need to play to make that future real.  Innovation teams that lack the innovation spirit altogether will never be able to break limiting patterns in their running organization.

Innovation management processes and project planning tools will help an innovation leader to navigate towards a successful implementation of his new initiative. But a process manager who forgets to unlock the human spirit will never be an innovation leader.

[1] Emmo Meijer, personal communication

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