The best and brightest teams can be rendered uninspired, stumped, scared and maybe even lazy when faced with a huge, blank whiteboard titled, "Our Next Big Thing…."
This is because brands, organizations and corporations unwittingly or not create blocks to creativity. One reason Motivate Design developed the What If Technique™, a new way to help organizations and people unstick their thinking and reframe problems as opportunities by flexing their creative muscle, was because organizations tend to build creative thinking roadblocks. This corporate lore (as we call it) – knowledge, beliefs, or traditions employees learn through the ways their organizations operate – strangles innovation.
Three ways corporate lore blocks creativity
They see beliefs as fact
Blocks often occur when organizations believe that beliefs and opinions are true and treat them as facts, or even irrefutable laws. These turn into mental blocks and prevent people from seeing opportunities: "There's no way to make renting a car or tooth brushing mind-blowing experiences." Are you sure? How do you know? These blocks can be social, political and personal, and consciously or unconsciously inflicted. For example, when you want to rent a car, you go to a car rental place and rent one. When you want to buy a car, you go to the dealership. These two options are not only expensive, but they are limiting and are not universally perfect. That's why two smart women took a chance on innovation, quit their day-jobs, and started a company that addressed the need for something in between. They refused to believe people didn't have a third option.
The Zipcar founders recognized an under-served market and moved in to fill the gap by offering rental cars billable by the hour and accessible at convenient public parking locations. Once a need is identified, new ideas flow. The list of companies that found success in innovative thinking spurred by people's needs is innumerable: Apple, Airbnb, Google, Jawbone, Amazon, etc. They did it despite the social, political and countless other beliefs positioned as facts that we've heard them speak about when recounting their journeys at conferences and in interviews.
They think ideation is too difficult
It's easy to come up with a few ideas. What's not easy is coming up with another 30 or 50 ideas without judging them. People are great at immediately analyzing ideas to determine the feasibility and solution quickly. Like physical training, training the creative muscle takes work, patience and a little discomfort. It's hard! We start hearing that there's no time for innovation sessions or workshops, let alone time to think through the details of radical ideas.
Let's go back to the Zipcar example. You don't have a car, but you need one. So, you go rent one. That's usually the easy part. But what if more than one person needs to drive it at once? What if it breaks down? Where do you put the key when you are finished using it? This level of detail – the questions without answers, the problems without solutions – this is where the meat of great ideas come from. It's also the area that people tend to avoid because it gets tough. Do you want Bluetooth tech in a toothbrush? Will waterproofing be an issue? Would users want to charge or exchange it? Will it be profitable? You're just digging deeper and deeper into the problem space. It's hard stuff, but it often allows the needed perspective to get to that awesome idea.
And awesome ideas make the ideation pains go away.
Organizations don't play to win
Are you playing to win or are you playing to not lose?
If a company is not clear on that answer, it's hard for people to align with the overall goals. Performance reviews and rules prevent people from trying things that might fail. This all adds up to an environment where ideas are not likely to thrive. Innovation is about big wins through big experimentation. What happens when a company limits innovation and their organizational integrity is misaligned or scarce?
Here's an example: We had a financial client that spent over $1-million with another agency to identify their target audience. We were brought in to use all prior research to recruit people who fit the persona and run user reviews to analyze the new design comps. The problem was we couldn't find anyone who fit the persona, even with the help of professional recruiters. We discovered the persona the client was looking for didn't exist. After some deliberation, the recruiting criteria was adjusted to align with a more realistic persona. Then we recruited participants and observed that they didn't like the design comp. The financial information was not presented in a way they could understand, the context was lost and the new features didn't solve their problems. This was a very scary discovery for everyone since major money and time was invested to discover what people wanted from the website. The review report went back and forth multiple times, so as not to offend anyone: the first agency; the agency's client; the CMO, who was waiting for the results; our client – it was endless. Everyone was so worried about who would get blamed that the target audience's critical issue (the new design wasn't effective) was buried in the blame game.
This story epitomizes the way fear, when embedded in corporations, can block innovative thinking. The incentive for employees is to make the boss happy and use resources to justify actions or place blame elsewhere, rather than nurture an idea that solves customer problems and betters their experiences.
So, when we ask, "Why isn't innovation happening here?" we can look to the myriad layers of corporate lore and blocks to creativity that add up to a pile of excuses (internal, sanctioned or enforced). Fortunately, we can overcome them by recognizing them, deciding to take a stand and flexing our creative muscle to come up with ways around them.
This post is excerpted from the forthcoming book Reframe: Shift the way you think, work, and innovate.
Mona Patel is founder and CEO at Motivate Design, a user experience and design thinking agency, and the recruiting firm, UX Hires.