Forget the Pool Table—Innovation Is a Brutal Business

Workplace innovation is a serious business. An innovative culture requires discipline and a high level of competence, along with the humility to hear you’re wrong until you get it right. What does it take to lead in this tough environment? It’s more than a well-placed pool table.

By Marty Graham, Contributor

Innovation is really fun, right? Brainstorming between ping pong or pool games; being free to fail after a couple of rounds of foosball in the meeting room; chatting at creativity labs and over catered lunches; going on retreats and participating in team-building.

Well, creativity consultants say innovation can be brutal: It’s disciplined and risky, and being able to speak—and hear—harsh truths is far more important than playing table games.

It’s not a saunter on the green, says Gary Pisano, professor at the Harvard School of Business. It’s more like climbing Mount Everest. For all that we hear about a culture failing gloriously, taking risks and collaborating, we don’t hear much about the intensity and accompanying pressures in an innovative workplace.

“A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence…Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability.”

—Gary Pisano, professor at the Harvard School of Business

“A tolerance for failure requires an intolerance for incompetence. A willingness to experiment requires rigorous discipline. Psychological safety requires comfort with brutal candor,” Pisano says. “Collaboration must be balanced with individual accountability. And (structural) flatness requires strong leadership.”

If it sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is.

“The harsh reality of innovative cultures is that they are not much fun,” Pisano continues. “They are extremely disciplined, they involve high degrees of personal accountability, and they are brutally candid places. Not everyone will thrive.”

Conflict = Fun

A certain kind of fun is an essential part of innovation, says corporate creativity coach Gregg Fraley, and when he says “fun,” he means high intensity back-and-forth conversations that mean to push participants out of their comfort zones and beat an idea into shape.

“It’s playing with ideas and concepts,” Fraley continues. “These discussions can be cranky and dissentious, but that’s fun for people who aren’t taking it personally.”

Conflict can be a positive because it helps you figure something out. A lame idea with a glint of genius at its core can be hammered, heated, and melded into shape as the group kicks it around, tears it apart, pulls out the garbage, and puts in context. The brutal process, like pulling gold from ore, can get to the genius part, as long as there are tools and deep exploration of what’s possible and what sticking points remain.

The good news is there will be more innovation. The bad news is you have more conflict. Therefore, innovative groups have to move through the conflict as part of the process of innovating.

Diversity Leads Innovation

“We’ve learned that the most diverse team usually has the most innovation,” Fraley says. “Diversity in age, in ethnicity and culture, diversity in training and skill sets, in job skills and especially in thinking style.”

How a coder and other highly-skilled engineers see an idea is not how an end user sees the idea or the resulting tool. Viewed through many different eyes and different filters—and shared frankly—the ideas end up shaped with richness and depth impossible to find without mixing different disciplines.

Think about self-driving cars: While the engineer sees the dynamic systems intermeshing, the owner sees maintenance schedules; the mechanic sees where things go wrong; commuters see a space they live in part-time; and the passengers see that the windows are dirty. On the outside, the pedestrian sees the same car as a threat to her life.

“The first batch of answers is obvious and linear,” Fraley says. “What people bring back after that is where innovative ideas emerge.”

Executing Ideas Is Tough, Risky Work

There are always some painful moments with innovation, according to Michael Bednar-Brandt, head of business innovation at Oracle NEXT. He likes to joke that innovation at Oracle NEXT starts with an idea and a PowerPoint presentation.

“Innovation is ideas executed,” he says. “Ideas are fantastic and very important, but they’re just the beginning. Execution is the hard part in every large organization; executing the idea is what takes the most time and energy, and if you get it wrong you end up with a bloody nose.”

Fraley agrees that putting ideas in motion is where the real innovation—and risk—occurs. The projects, not the brainstorming, are how a culture becomes innovation-friendly.

“Projects are brutal and they’re fraught with every possible roadblock you can think of, and some you didn’t,” he says. They’re also exhilarating and projects are where the big I innovation, and its unforeseen consequences, occur.

He likes to point to Apple and its 1993-released handheld device, the Newton. It was a $500 million, four-year flash in the pan—killed by Steve Jobs—that introduced the idea of holding our then desktop-confined computing power in our hands, precisely how we use our phones and tablets today. Though it failed, the ideas that went into it—the first voice-interactive assistant in its calendar, the portability and curse of battery life, and its handwriting recognition—were all revolutionary at the time. These concepts were carried forward to our phones, tablets, and even into the voices of Siri and Alexa.

“People forget that Apple was already a $24 billion company when it launched the Newton,” Fraley says. “And they forget that the innovative team had the project taken away from them and then discarded.”

Innovation Is Counterintuitive

Some of the best ideas come from unlikely people and places, Fraley says. The malcontents and troublemakers can be a great asset if their dissent comes from dissatisfaction for the unsustainable present.

Asking employees to come up with ideas that move the business model when they have plenty of demands in the existing workload may not get to great ideas, though it can yield good ones. After all, corporate reward systems are about making the trains run on time, and if that’s what people were hired to do, that will remain a central focus when they parse through the challenge of innovation.

“If people were hired to keep the business running, their ideas mesh with the spinning flywheel of the operation and you’ll get innovations, better processes, and tools,” Fraley says. “I call those small I innovations—they’re valuable and it’s good to have them, but that won’t get the company to the next business model.”

When Blockbuster workers were asked where the company should go next while they were trying to keep up with their demanding job, pizza was the answer, Fraley notes. Get the video and the pizza in a single stop.

“No one thought that people might want to just stay home and have movies delivered to them—at first by mail the way Netflix started. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that we’d be downloading movies from the web because we were still dialing in from our landlines.”

Getting to Big I

While everyone is crazy for culture, projects are where the innovation occurs, many coaches and experts agree. (Fraley estimates that 80 percent of brainstorming sessions fail.)

“In innovating, best practices can be stupid. If everyone else is doing what you’re doing, you don’t have an advantage and you’re not innovating.”

—Gregg Fraley, corporate creativity coach

Innovation projects follow a parallel path to operational projects: have a good plan, stick to the requirements, control costs and schedule, allow some margin in high-risk areas. But they have the added complexity of a high level of ambiguity and a lot of unknowns. Managers often turn to “best practices” to try to control the process, which needs to be closely monitored and guided.

“In innovating, best practices can be stupid. If everyone else is doing what you’re doing, you don’t have an advantage and you’re not innovating,” Fraley says.

Projects are where real risk occurs, so managing with deep understanding of the project is critical.

They’re also dangerous in that big ideas—the ones companies want—can and will upend the status quo. In a best case scenario, innovators may be putting themselves out of work.

“If Kodak had been willing to cannibalize its own film business,” Fraley says, “it would still be here in the digital imaging marketplace.”