Can there be any innovation where we fail to accept the fact that the status quo is no longer acceptable?
Just read an interesting article about when to leave status quo behind and do a paradigm shift. It got me thinking about how challenging it is to find the right balance. We’ve all heard that “when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But after years within the same organization, it’s sometimes difficult to really see when something is broken.
That’s why we bring in outside consultants to give us a fresh perspective. But, we don’t always listen to them. It’s too easy to say “they don’t understand our mission… our culture… our way of doing things… our marketplace… our whatever.” I sometimes prefer to substitute the word exuberance for innovation. Exuberance, most richly defined, means optimism and forward-looking. It’s trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, and it’s active rather than passive.
You can’t be innovative if you don’t think there’s a problem to be addressed. Truly innovative, or exuberant, people, teams and organizations have the ability to see when there’s a problem and to then take action to address that problem.
Imagine that the doctors who used to drain people’s blood as a cure had clung forever to the notion that this was “the way we do things.” Or imagine (and this may be closer to home) a refusal in your own household to compost or recycle because “we’ve been fine not doing this up until now, and this takes a lot of time and energy.”
Innovation requires an investment of time and resources, and a shift in how we look at the world. And many of us would prefer to stay pat. It’s easier. It’s more relaxing. We prefer to “just chill.”
Of course, balance is important. Innovation does not mean chasing after every shiny new object and disposing of perfectly serviceable systems and strategies. In the article to which I refer, Adam Stewart writes: And when is it worth it? Why and when we innovate is of primal importance and is directly related to the question of status quo. There are times and places in our organizational work where the status quo is acceptable (and we hope many cases where it is actually optimal). Our organizations would be horribly inefficient if we didn’t ever distinguish between what we find suitable and what we would like to change. Yet not only do we often ignore this important question, but, as a result, we replicate the status quo in our innovation process.
Too often we go back to that comfortable place — even if it’s no longer working. I’m reminded of how often people get divorced, only to wind up in a new relationship with someone very similar to the person they walked away from. They then repeat that which they’d already discovered was not working. We really need to evaluate our status quo in a systematic way.
Tools such as SWOT analyses can be very helpful in this regard. The bringing together of key stakeholders — executive leadership, board, volunteers and donors — will also help inform this process. But it needs to be done in a facilitated environment that feels safe and open. Otherwise, it’s just too likely people’s blinders will remain on through the entire process.
Taking an honest look at what’s working/what’s not working can be a very liberating thing for an organization to do. Once people agree on what’s not working, there is a freedom to abandon time-consuming processes that are not yielding substantial results or significant satisfaction. This opens up whole new possibilities for allocation of resources, and can be a very exciting time within an organization.
Leadership, however, is key. True innovation requires exuberant leadership from the top. The passion to change requires exactly that. Passion.