A culture can’t turn ideas into innovations

I was skimming through some of my old notes when I came across this line:

Without reciprocity, in both deeds and resourcing, a culture can’t turn ideas into innovations.

And I thought of how there’s always a call to innovate at work. There’s always an invitation for new ideas. There’s always a call for change.

But it’s one thing to ask, and another to deliver. I’m a firm believer that you can’t just say something and that alone will will it to happen. There’s got to be some intentionality. If you want something done, you have to create space for it, you have to make time for it, you have to allow for it to happen. Because, physics, I guess. I don’t know how else to explain that going from A to B requires actually going from A to B. Hmmm… maybe logic.

Anyways, I’m putting in here some of my other notes relating to that quote and to creating the space for work or change to happen.

From “Innovation for the Fatigued (2019)”

The core tenet is if you want more innovation, give people what they need in order to innovate.

  • Make responses mandatory
  • Promote givers — In order to build a culture of reciprocity, leaders need to look for the givers of the organization, the people who are always ready to help with comments or support for ideas, and look to promote for generosity. The more givers you have in top management, the easier it will be to build respect and reflection.
  • Twin demands with support — You cannot develop innovation in an organization by simply demanding more and more of it. … make sure that demands are always reciprocated with support – be this allotted time, material resources and/or encouragement.
  • Punish indifference

Without reciprocity, in both deeds and resourcing, a culture can’t turn ideas into innovations.

From “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work (2018)”

Reasonable expectations are out the window with whatever it takes. So you know you’re going to grossly underestimate the difficulty and complexity required to make it happen.

…Rather than demand whatever it takes, we ask, What will it take? That’s an invitation to a conversation. One where we can discuss strategy, make tradeoffs, make cuts, come up with a simpler approach all together, or even decide it’s not worth it after all.

From “Fast Times (2020)”

Having bold aspirations matters, but only when also matched by corresponding commitment. Without allocating funds and resources at sufficient scale over enough time, the value of digital will remain a mirage—promising but forever out of reach.

From “Brave New Work (2019)”

Creating space also means making time for change. Because most teams simply don’t have it.

One of the most self-destructive tendencies within teams is to get so busy that we believe there’s no time to get better at how we work

Continuous improvement is not magic; it is a discipline. It is a thing we do. And like all valuable things, it takes time. The average team doesn’t spend even thirty minutes a week reflecting on how they work together. They are going to need your help to stop this pattern and clear a path. Because we can’t learn if there’s no time to think. Teams need time for retrospection. They need time for personal reflection. They need time for deep work. They need time to run experiments and find a better way.

From “Full Metal Alchemist” (Anime)

Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world’s one and only truth.

There’s not going to be a shortage of material that supports the idea that it takes action to make change happen. Magic would be cool but most of us are muggles.

Not every new thing is an innovation

My friend Alice shared that she conducted a talk and shared that they were using so-and-so tool in their project, whereas typically projects use this other so-and-so tool. That seemed to have wowed her audience and they said that could be considered as an innovation. Alice and I agreed that it felt like it wasn’t. Unless you’d call it an innovation if I suggested to use Google Docs as opposed to Microsoft Office.

But isn’t innovation simply a new idea, device or method? Something new that will make things easier for yourself and others? Yes and yes. But taking that definition kind of opens the floodgates where anything new could be taken as innovation — which shouldn’t be the case because not every new thing can be regarded as truly innovative.

In googling what is not innovation in the hopes of getting more insights on this, I found this whose points I do understand:

First, an improvement that only meets the market standard or reacts to innovation that your competitors have already introduced into the market is NOT innovation. It’s playing catch-up.

Second, introducing an improvement that does not significantly differentiate you from your competitors is NOT innovation. It’s simply just an improvement—evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And finally, introducing improvement that may give you a competitive advantage but also can be easily copied by your competitors is NOT innovation. It’s just a temporary advantage.

…Here’s the takeaway: It’s easy to confuse improvement with innovation. But only innovation creates a unique outcome that, despite the superior financial returns resulting from the action, competitors are either unwilling or unable to match.

Now, innovation or not, I still believe in looking for and sharing things that helps us make things easier for ourselves and others. Whatever ideas we put onto the table and help realize, just push for it if it holds the promise of making things better. And you can just let other people decide if it’s an innovation or not.

Why aren’t we… why don’t we have…

Warning: A lot of mention of “innovation”, “innovate”, “innovative” in this post. Here’s a photo of my two cute dogs if you need a break from those buzzwords.

A question got raised one evening while we were in Tinola (that’s the name of the conference room, which is also the name of a local viand), and we ended up having a full-blown discussion over it complete with a mindmap on the white board.

So the question was: Why aren’t we innovating as much as they want? We decided the key points were: Time, Skills, Motivation. Experience is essential for the insights and the intuition it brings for being able to distinguish what could be of value and what would most likely be a waste of time. We had a dotted line to “Management support” as they’d be the one most qualified to allocate time and skills at least. But that didn’t make the cut on what’s at the top of our list. Looking at the image, it kind of generally addresses any other question on why we don’t have something that’s being demanded of us.


I’ll try to go over each item from what I can recall.

Time – To produce something or create something generally takes time. I think that’s a physical, realistic, and basic requirement. Just sitting down on a problem can’t solve it — you have to think about it, process it, rack your brains for solutions or ideas. That by itself takes time. And implementing the solution all the more. So when folks are so busy in their projects, it’s a bit hard to expect them to focus on anything else.

But say you free up people so they can work on “innovations”, there’s this other aspect on skills.

Skills – If the expected solution is an implemented application or system, then that requires skills in software engineering — design and analysis, then there’s implementation or coding, testing, etc. These are skills you don’t just build overnight so with the learning curve, it’s going to take a lot more time to come up with a minimum viable product (i had to use that term*). Then there’s this concern on which skill do we need to build up further — shouldn’t we focus on strengthening our testing chops since we’re testers after all? Learn more about other aspects of testing that could be relevant to our craft/career? Or should we use that hypothetical free time learning to code so we can create applications?

And then again do we know how to innovate to begin with? Maybe there are some workshops to develop one’s skills in problem solving or creative thinking which could increase one’s chances in coming up with something innovative.

So say we have the time, we have the skills. It doesn’t mean we’ll already be working on innovating. We need a reason why to drive us and that’s the third point which is motivation.

Motivation – This is what would compel us to innovate. It’s so important to have a why! It’s emphasized so much even in the Jillian Michael’s workout video I’ve been regularly watching where she says “If you have a why, you can tolerate any how.”

It’s but natural for us humans to ask what’s in this for me? What would I get out of this? This could take on different forms — it could be financial rewards for some, fun for others, opportunities to learn for the rest, etc. It depends on the person’s individual priorities on what would be rewarding and in turn motivating for him.

Then there’s also the question on whether there is even a need to innovate. Of course, there are always things that could be improved, but there has to be a good problem to solve — the kind that’ll feel like you have an itch to scratch, the kind that will merit the need to spend time on it.

So that’s pretty much it for what we discussed that evening. Thanks for reading!

*Long story — maybe i can share some other time. I’ve rambled on for too long already. Thanks again for reading!

Innovation schmation

I was asked to write an article on innovation sometime ago to be included in our team’s newsletter. It’s finally out so I can finally post it here. I guess my basic thinking about the whole innovation thing is to get over the hurdle that it’s this major monster of a buzzword that only special geniuses can overcome. As Seneca puts it, “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” So really, just try and start doing.

Have you ever had a pretzel from Auntie Anne’s? I’d typically have a Cinnamon & Sugar pretzel, request for that to be cut into pieces, and order their cream cheese dip. Then one day, I was about to order my usual when I noticed something posted on the side. “Cinnamon Stix,” it read. The pretzel dough was shaped into short sticks coated with the Cinnamon & Sugar flavor, and each stick had a cream cheese filling. That “new” item was pretty much my usual order — rolled into a different package. “Ooh, innovation!”, I thought as I took my first bite.

It’s probably not what folks would even consider as an innovation. “Innovation” is such a buzzword nowadays. When you say “innovation”, people think of something mind-blowingly drastic with tremendously huge impact. The type that if you give a keynote speech about it you’ll get at least 5 minutes of standing ovation.

One other common notion is that you have to automate in order to innovate. Or that you need to produce a new tool that will save a measurable number of hours.

Or that you produce an even newer (hopefully, better) tool than the one just recently deployed. That happens. There was one time I attended a tools demo, and there were several tools that were shared but they were pretty much just different implementations of the same thing.

Discard those notions. Putting those limits in your head counters the chances of you coming up with one. So for starters, open up your mind to the possibility that you can come up with something that will make things easier for yourself and others. Take a look at how things are currently being done, and question whether they can be done better. It can be something as simple as introducing a minor change in one step of the process, or finding a useful shortcut key combination.

Your innovation doesn’t have to be big. You can start with the little things and it could be just as valuable because little things can add up to something bigger.

It doesn’t have to make a universal impact. Start with something that helps yourself, and then maybe work your way to helping a bigger audience.

You don’t need to automate. Automation is a tool that can be used to innovate; it is not innovation itself. If coding is not your thing, you can do research. For all you know there could be an existing solution to what you’re trying to address that is already out there.

It doesn’t have to be something totally new altogether. Just take my cinnamon stix example. Also, you don’t need to come up with a new tool every time. Sometimes it could just be a matter of tapping some unused feature of the existing tool, or looking into the current process rather than the tool.