Martyn Drake: Innovation is child's play

Why the goal of becoming more innovative is an adult mistake

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

When my kids were younger and we were travelling, I’d invent games we could play as temporary relief from the boredom-inspired, incessant bickering with which they would invariably fill any vacuum.

The one of which I’m most proud was "give me ten different ways you could…"

They would have to come up with ten different ways you could use an object, whether it was a brick, a balloon or a paperclip.

Over time, their patience with me lessened and responses shifted from the creative – "scratch your initials on a glass" – to the more direct: "clip ten lots of paper together. Now can I play on your phone?"

It was good while it lasted, but within that small vignette is a broader illustration of how most of us develop: from the open-minded inventiveness of inexperienced youth to the decisive impatience of adulthood.

It’s a pragmatic change in mentality, driven by the pressure of time, the needs of our jobs and the world around us, but it has a price.

And nowhere is that price more visible than in the growing desire of organisations to become more "innovative". Increasingly, in businesses and in non-profits, I’m seeing the word emerge within values statements and strategic priorities.

Innovation is the silver bullet that will simultaneously broaden our reach, increase our impact, raise us out of the crowd and future-proof our organisation. The irony is that a silver bullet is the last thing we should be looking for.

I regularly host seminars for groups of leaders where I’ll present a specific problem or case study and split the attendees into groups to come up with solutions. Invariably, each group comes up with a different "silver bullet", from which I draw out three lessons: there are many ways to crack a nut; they are rarely mutually exclusive; and people stop thinking once they’ve come up with one.

We love silver bullets so much that, once we think we’ve found one, we genuinely can’t bring ourselves to wipe it from our minds and come up with another equally good alternative, even when we’re asked to.

How many papers have you produced or received that purport to have three "options", but actually have only one, bracketed by the "do-nothing" option and the outrageous alternative? It’s a problem that goes to the heart of our innovation issue.

In strategy workshops, if I can I break teams into groups to work independently on the same question.

Working as a single team invariably leads to a single answer – a silver bullet – whereas working as discrete groups in parallel creates a plethora of viable alternatives, with commonalities that can underpin a flexible plan and differences that can be investigated and explored.

It’s collective creativity, enhanced by a playful approach and a childish simplicity of task, that can help us to recognise and begin to exercise our individually atrophied creative muscles.  

Being able to look at a situation from different angles, to simultaneously hold in your head a variety of different interpretations of data, to look for alternative paths even after you’ve found a serviceable one are capacities we naturally have as children but steadfastly discard as we grow up.

This is a fundamental part of creativity and an essential ingredient for innovative thinking, whether in strategy development, product and service design or everyday leadership decision-making.

Innovation is both a verb and a noun. We talk about developing innovation as a capability, an activity or a process, because what we’re really after is the end product: innovation, the noun.

But what we often miss is that the raw material required for that process is creativity. And what we don’t realise is that the best way to kill creativity is with a silver bullet.

Deciding your organisation needs to be more innovative (silver bullet #1) and defining a plan to make it so (silver bullet #2) is simply kicking the can down the road and making it increasingly unlikely to happen.

So stop talking about it, planning it and engaging it, and start doing it.

Identify one challenge or problem, right now, that would benefit from a more innovative approach and ask your team, childishly, playfully to "give me ten different ways you could…"

You might be surprised by how innovative they can become.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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