Chris Labash, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University

I had a great time talking with Chris Labash, Professor at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. Chris has a rich background in industry. Before joining the ranks of academia he held a variety of positions, including that of creative director with the largest agency at the time, and a marketing executive at multiple start-ups.

We started off by talking about the difference between creativity and innovation. Chris believes that creativity has to do with what’s going on inside of you — the connections you’re making, the patterns that you’re looking for, the leaps of intuition, etc. Innovation on the other hand is the practical application of creativity — it has a more tangible feel.

Technology and innovation go hand in hand of course, but increasingly technology will become a mere enabler of innovation. We won’t be thinking about it anymore than we think about electricity when we turn on a light switch. That will be especially true for the younger workforce that is entering the workplace now.

Humans are hardwired for innovation and creativity, yet somehow during our educational and professional formation, many of us lose the ability to create and innovate. The result is that we need to be retrained in how to be creative and innovative.

We also talked about the importance of good, robust, thoughtful, penetrating, and insightful conversations on innovations — with research from Lynda Gratton at the London School of Economics showing that “hot spots” in organizations, or teams that perform very, very well, can be identified by having good conversation.

More important than having super creative people in your organization is to have a more formal process or methodology that allows everyone in the organization to play.

The best innovations happen when people collaborate and when ideas are recombined in a creative frictional environment. Chris believes that you cannot crowd-source innovation — it will always get done by a small core of people who are totally passionate about the innovation. That being said, crowds can influence the innovation. It is critical for innovation to happen to share ideas early, and let others, especially customers, poke holes at it as early as possible. Good ideas will survive the attacks that some will mount on them. Unfortunately, for many people that is antithetical to their beliefs — they consider ideas fragile and don’t want anyone to see it until they have it perfect.

Companies have to treat innovations as a portfolio, and they need to balance that portfolio with different bets — some big bets and some small bets. Focusing only on small continuous improvements the way some companies, which are implementing Lean or Agile methodologies, are doing is a mistake. Focusing only on the big ideas is equally wrong. It all needs to be balanced against the risk profile you are willing to take.

We discussed risk at length, and how many companies stop innovating because they try to de-risk everything. Of course there is no such thing as the ultimate risk algorithm, but many companies need to become more risk-intelligent rather than being totally risk-averse.

Chris and I also spent a fair amount of time talking about the importance of culture in innovation. That is an especially hard problem to tackle for companies that have not traditionally been innovative or future-focused. And while you might find yourself going by the wayside if you are not a tremendously innovative company — the fact that most don’t perceive it as an immediate life and death threat makes it hard to get people to change. That is where the importance of small team innovation comes in. That is also where the importance of rewards come in. What do you reward inside your organization? Do you reward thinking? Do you reward initiative? Do you reward exploration? Do you reward participation? Or, do you reward the care and feeding of ideas? The way you reward and recognize people, will determine your future culture.

Humans are born to be creative and innovative, and they are tremendous problem-solvers — it’s in the species. So in a lot of ways, companies should not have to create cultures of innovation, they need to make sure that they remove the barriers that stand in the way of unleashing that embedded human creativity.

We closed the conversation by circling back to the role of communications in innovation and how the drive towards virtual teams is changing the nature of communications. We will inevitably have more misunderstandings and more non-engagement, and while there are techniques to avoid this, at some point you need to get people face-to-face.

Other things that we discussed include:

  • How technology can be leveraged for creativity
  • The value of wondering around in innovation
  • The difference between small team innovation and innovating with a crowd
  • The success of the iPhone innovation vs. the relative failure of Tivo
  • The consumerization of IT and its impact on innovation
  • The culture of innovation at P&G that led to Swiffer
  • The impact of over-stressed middle management on companies’ ability to innovate.
  • How the best rewards are non-financial

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