Innovation. Agility. It’s becoming ever more important. Everybody talks about it. Everybody is doing it. Really? What’s the impact? And is there a difference between “doing” innovation and “being” innovative? 

It’s not about technology

The new world of VUCA generates NEW TECH at very high speed. Sometimes it’s hard to follow. Who can afford to lose out on a tech opportunity? 

Almost 10 years ago, I was working on a “disruptive mobile service innovation for retailers on a national scale”. The starting point was a new technology. The idea was great 😉 The project to prepare a big test rollout ran for 2.5 years. The End: It never succeeded.  

I learned a lesson from this project: Saying “we put the customer first” does not mean at all that the customer needs are even recognized correctly, let alone understood (what you think is true versus what is actually true). My retro-reflection helped me to STOP this behavior of “falling in love with solutions” and START every time with the question: “how does the customer really feel about this?”. 

It’s not about methodology 

About 3 years ago, I was contributing to a new product development project on cutting edge AI tech in a large organization. Multidisciplinary teams were working in pods, modern collaboration spaces offered a nice environment, the project started with customer interviews along a design thinking approach. A few months into the project, none of the internal team members had personally spoken to a real customer (even though it was planned) but time was running for a scheduled board meeting. Under pressure, the initial idea was tweaked a bit with conclusions from the customer interviews and a short creativity injection. The End: The new product never succeeded. 

I learned from this experience how difficult it is for teams to get rid of some traditional habits and automatic reactions, especially once time is running and/or pressure is rising. I saw the team switching their top of mind topics, focusing on the scheduled board decision timeline, unconsciously falling back into project planning instead of customer focus.

Mindset and Culture

What does all this tell us? Cutting edge TECHNOLOGY and NEW WAYS OF WORKING do not show desired impact if the mindset of the people in the team is not aligned. Humans fall back into old habits. “Doing” innovation instead of “being” innovative. This will not produce the desired impact. The old thought patterns make blind to new possibilities. Teams are trapped in industrial era thinking. But why is it so difficult to change thinking and habits?

Mindset and culture are anchored in our lower brains (next to left and right brain there is the concept of upper and lower brain). Opinions and behavior in our lower brain are automatic. 70% of our activity is typically managed by the lower brain, and this is important to handle complexity. Many of the neural paths in the lower brain were forged some time ago, therefore many models are still from the industrial era, and are now running on auto-mode. Often we don’t even realize that we are acting in the old mode while trying a new way of working. Now, how to get our brains out of the blackbox that is triggering OLDLAND behavior and transform them into NEWLAND behavior?

Fixing new challenges with old solutions?

It would be easy to use OLDLAND methods (e.g. training or top-down change programs) to talk about mindset and culture. But are there more effective ways to say STOP, identify automatisms from the lower brain, pull them up to the higher brain (conscious reflection) and test new behaviors to START? Maybe we have to reinvent the way we learn? Maybe we have to change the way we change? What are the skills to foster? Maybe we should learn-to-learn instead of feeding content into our brain?

STOP. Not too fast!

It would be easy to rapidly apply a known solution instead of slowing down and validating the questions first. STOP, because there are several problems with traditional learning approaches from the industrial era: 

  1. Lack of business outcomes: Executives report that up to 90% of current training does not show significant impact on desired business outcomes*. At the same time, employees regret that they do not learn at work, at their own pace and not at the point of need according to LinkedIn Workplace Learning study.
  2. Not adapted to the way our brain functions: Neuroscience and other research shows that many existing learning formats are not adapted to the way our brain naturally functions. We are trying the hard way even though it could be easier, more effective and reducing much learning waste.
  3. Focus on knowledge instead of skills: old systems are primarily teaching knowledge and don’t put enough focus on skills and behaviors that will empower learners to become autonomous in the face of change in the the world of VUCA. In other words, learning to learn or the learning organization. This includes the crucial need of unlearning before relearning – a critical success factor or a total show-stopper. 

*see Havard Business Review France, Fev-Mar 2020, p.54

An example: Empathy Skill

Let’s have a look at an example of a NEWLAND skill that helps on the journey to become truly innovative: Empathy. “Empathy makes you a better innovator” says Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. 

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Empathy is one of the NEWLAND skills with growing importance which are embedded in mindset and culture. “Empathy might seem like a funny talking point for a giant tech company, … Nadella makes a compelling case for why empathy matters more than most people think in business.” notes Business Insider before listing some of the reasons to foster empathy in business teams, reasons in addition to the ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.

Since 2014, Satya Nadella has re-positioned Microsoft back at the top of digital leaders after the company had lost this position. He rebuilt the company culture for this turnaround. 

Don’t be brilliant, be curious

“Don’t be brilliant, be curious” is another quote by Satya Nadella.

It joins the message from Ernest Hemingway: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen”.

It also links to a statement from Albert Einstein, which I discussed in a previous article“Don’t listen to the person who has the answer; listen to the person who has the questions.”. 

Education, work, life,… typically has pushed us into OLDLAND behavior of moving very fast to solutions instead of validating upfront that the question is right. This is behavior from the lower brain. It’s a habit. But it is unlearnable. Empathy helps to learn listening, to ask better questions, to become more curious. It’ll lead to better solutions in the end. We can relearn empathy, it’s not just an innate skill. Empathy can be a first step to brain innovation. Because it all starts with people’s needs. Not technology or methodology. 

Updating the brain operating system

Mindset and working culture can be a success factor or a strong blocker. The difference between “being” innovative and “doing” innovation. The root cause for trying to fix new challenges with old solutions and not getting the desired outcome. Brain innovation might be the missing part in the equation with technology innovation and and new ways of working / methodology.

Have you ever thought about rewiring your team’s brain?