Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Naturally Innovative

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“But if you will it, it is not fantasy” – Theodor Herzl

Recently, virtually every organization that I speak with has put innovation front and center as a necessary, in fact imperative characteristic of their organizational cultures. The thinking is clear. In order to thrive in turbulent environments organizations must innovate, must examine the way they do business, update their products and services, and must differentiate themselves in order to outperform the competition. Competition, environmental stress and the need to survive as an organization spur on innovation.

Innovation is often described as coming in bursts, but much more common is the rolling-up-the-sleeves, hard work, incremental innovation, building on other’s breakthroughs, often in a collaborative fashion, that over the long run can radically change the way things work and the products that an organization offers.

It could easily be argued that innovation occurs naturally among all of the earth’s creatures. Species innovate constantly and naturally in the never ending battle to survive. One species of cuckoo finch has eggs that mimic the coloration of another species so that when the finch deposits their eggs into the other species’ nest, the hatched baby birds are raised by the tricked surrogate parents. As a defense the second species, the tawny-flanked prinias evolved more colorful eggs that looked different form the finch’s eggs but the finches responded by evolving and again mimicking the more colorful eggs. Evolution is innovative.

The mitochondria that inhabit our cells and produce the energy which powers cells originated externally from the cells they now inhabit. They have their own DNA and can reproduce only from their own DNA, indicating that they were a separate life form somewhat like bacteria. Prior to their role in our cells they existed independently. Mitochondria entered into a symbiotic relationship with cells and then that combined organism evolved into the variety of cells that make up human beings. Today we would not be able to survive without these creatures living within our cells and the mitochondria would not exist without us. Evolutionary innovation is often collaborative.

Beyond evolving on a biological front, humans evolve and innovate their behaviors constantly if not quickly, with our ancestors developing new forms of stone tools over millennia, fire being tamed, the taking up of living in shelters of one sort or another, and placing metal strips on the teeth of our children to improve function and appearance.

Many of the inventions that propelled our civilization and were described as deriving from “ah-ha” moments were nothing of the sort. Rather the innovative breakthrough came from groundwork that laid the foundation and was then built upon. Basic innovations often sit dormant until additional development work and insights are gained allowing the innovation to be applied in day-to-day life.

Take Edison’s light bulb for instance. It is often credited to Edison as a singular event. And in fact Edison played a very important role in the light bulb, but without the innovations of those who came both before and after him the light bulb would not have become as wide spread as it has. Here is a chronology of the major milestones.

• The first electric light was made in 1800 by Humphry Davy. When he connected wires to his newly invented battery and a piece of carbon, the carbon glowed, producing light.
• Much later, in 1860, physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was determined to devise a practical, long-lasting electric light. He found that a carbon paper filament worked well, but burned up quickly. In 1878, he demonstrated his new electric lamps in Newcastle, England.
• In 1877, Charles Francis Brush manufactured some carbon arcs to light a public square in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. These arcs were used on a few streets, in a few large office buildings, and even some stores. Electric lights were only used by a few people.
• Thomas Alva Edison experimented with thousands of different filaments to find just the right materials to glow well and be long-lasting. In 1879, Edison discovered that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb glowed but did not burn up for 40 hours. Edison eventually produced a bulb that could glow for over 1500 hours.
• Lewis Howard Latimer improved the bulb by inventing a carbon filament (patented in 1881); Latimer was a member of Edison’s research team, which was called “Edison’s Pioneers.” In 1882, Latimer developed and patented a method of manufacturing his carbon filaments.
• In 1903, Willis R. Whitney invented a treatment for the filament so that it wouldn’t darken the inside of the bulb as it glowed.
• In 1910, William David Coolidge (1873-1975) invented a tungsten filament which lasted even longer than the older filaments. The incandescent bulb revolutionized the world. (Enchanted Learning).

Rather than being the exception the “evolution” of the light bulb is very often how innovation occurs with multiple people contributing, often working collaboratively over a period of time.

There are multiple methods available for measuring the existence of innovation in organizations. You could count the number of patents issued to the organization, or the age of each of its product’s since design, the amount of time that employees spend on innovation, the R&D budget, the headcount assigned to “innovation”, or the perceptions of the customers towards the organization’s products and services as being innovative. One method for measuring the degree of innovation in organizations is through the perceptions of the employees.

Employee surveys will often ask about the “emphasis” on innovation within the organization, but I prefer asking about whether innovation is actually occurring. Critical when measuring innovation through employee surveys is to ask about:
• the generation of innovative ideas;
• the ability to test out those ideas from a funding and other resources standpoint;
• the ability to evaluate innovations to see which one’s should be implemented organization-wide and which ones rejected.

Examining or asking about the reward system is also often very informative as an organization may truly desire to be innovative, but is actually rewarding its employees for playing it safe and not trying new things rather than the innovative efforts desired.

Slack and redundancy are two concepts that are also critical to be in place for an organization to successfully innovate. If an organization is being run in such a tight fashion with no slack so that it can’t try new things, because all resources are dedicated to getting the work done the traditional way, the ability to be innovative does not exist. And likewise if the organization does not have the ability to experiment with new methods, while another redundant process is performing in a traditional fashion, the evaluation of innovative ideas and processes will be very difficult to objectively assess.

Organizational innovation is critical and creating organizational cultures that support innovation rather than suppress it is within reach for all organizations.

© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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