The Capabilities Your Organization Needs to Sustain Innovation13 May, 2015 / Articles
Why are some organizations able to innovate again and again while others hardly innovate at all? How can hundreds of people at a company like Pixar Animation Studios, for example, work together to produce blockbuster after blockbuster over nearly two decades – a record no other filmmaker has ever come close to matching? What’s different about Pixar that enables it not only to achieve, but also to sustain innovation?
It’s a crucial question. In recent years, many people have sought to understand how organizational innovation works, hoping to shed light on the broader and deeper dynamics and principles at play. They have debunked the myth of the lone genius, discrediting the idea that innovation is purely a solitary act or flash of insight in the mind of one creative individual.
Amidst this swirl of inquiry, however, there has been less attention given to the precise nature of organizing for innovation, the capabilities that drive discovery, and above all, how to lead innovation successfully. This has been our focus.
Consider Thomas Edison, perhaps the greatest American inventor of the early 20th century. From his fertile mind came the light bulb and the phonograph, along with more than 1,000 other patented inventions over a 60-year career. But he didn’t work alone. As many have observed, perhaps Edison’s greatest contribution was not one single invention, but rather his artisan-oriented shops – a new way of organizing for innovation that has evolved into today’s R&D laboratory with its team-based approach. Edison may get the credit for “his” inventions – it was his laboratory, of course – but each typically arose from years of effort that included many others.
Edison’s example illustrates the collaborative nature of the innovative process. Innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view. Flashes of insight may play a role but most often they simply build on and contribute to the collaborative work of others. Edison’s true legacy – and secret to success – was that he was equally an inventor and a leader of invention.
At Pixar, they – like Edison – recognize the importance of organizing for innovation. They truly believe that everyone has a slice of genius to contribute to the collective genius of the whole. Without the contributions of large numbers of people, the company simply could not make a computer-generated (CG) movie. Whether it is the artists who develop the story, the engineers who render the images, or those who mind the business, all are aware that they cannot succeed alone. Collaboration is a hallmark of Pixar’s approach. No individual can produce the final solution, but each contribution plays its part in creating a spectacular movie. As Ed Catmull, Pixar’s cofounder and president noted: “We’re not just making up how to do CG movies; we’re making up how to run a company of diverse people who can make something together that no one could make alone.”
So how does it work?
Three Capabilities of Innovation
After studying masters of organizational innovation for over 10 years, we’ve identified three key activities that truly innovative organizations like Pixar are able to do well. First, the people and groups in them do collaborative problem solving, which we call creative abrasion. Second, they try things and learn by discovery, demonstrating creative agility. Third, they create new and better solutions because they integrate existing ideas in unanticipated ways, practicing creative resolution.
A large body of research points to the importance of these three activities in innovation. They might sound straightforward and relatively simple, but consider what each of them actually involves.
Creative abrasion. New and useful ideas emerge as people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view thrash out their differences. The kind of collaboration that produces innovation is more than simple “get-along” cooperation. It involves and should involve passionate discussion and disagreement.
This creative collaboration produces innovation, but to many, this kind of engagement is hard and can be emotionally draining. The sparks that fly can sting or, at minimum, create tension and stress. To collaborate means making oneself vulnerable to hard questions and push-back. Not everyone wants to do that all the time. It’s no wonder that some and perhaps many people choose to remain silent rather than participate.
Creative agility. Almost by definition, a truly creative solution is something that cannot be foreseen or planned. Thus, innovation is a problem-solving process that proceeds by trial-and-error. A portfolio of ideas is generated and tested, then revised and retested, in an often lengthy process of repeated experimentation. Hence Edison’s famous definition of genius: “1 percent inspiration; 99 percent perspiration.” Instead of following some linear process that can be carefully planned in advance, it’s messy and unpredictable.
By its nature, then, innovation requires activities and interim outcomes that make most organizations nervous. Experiments take time and patience. They produce false starts, mistakes, and dead ends along the way. Missteps and rework are inevitable and must be accepted, even encouraged. These realities don’t lend themselves to the preferred corporate approach of set a goal, make a plan, and work the plan. As a consequence, those who take this approach make themselves vulnerable to criticism and blame.
So, to avoid anything that looks like failure, most people don’t perform the experiments that produce real innovation. Instead, they simply generate a set of alternate solutions and then choose one and pursue it. Organizations that innovate not only attempt new things, but they invite failure as part of the cost of discovery. And, nobody gets in trouble for trying something that doesn’t work.
As Ed Catmull told us, if Pixar had “no failures,” which he defined as a “less than spectacular outcome,” then that would suggest they had lost their appetite for doing bleeding-edge work. It’s part of Pixar’s culture that nobody gets penalized for trying something that didn’t work.
Creative resolution. Integrating ideas – incorporating the best of option A and option B to create something new, option C, that’s better than A or B – often produces the most innovative solution. However, the process of integration can be inherently discomforting, emotionally and intellectually.
The problem – and the leadership challenge – arises because options A and B are often incompatible, even completely opposable, ideas. To arrive at option C means people must keep both A and B on the table, and that is difficult to do. When faced with two seemingly mutually exclusive alternatives, the human impulse is to choose one and discard the other as soon as possible, or to forge a simple compromise. We crave the clarity provided by that kind of clean, assured decision-making. We crave it so much, in fact, that when a leader refuses to make a choice quickly, even when it can only be arbitrary or capricious, we grumble about the “lack of leadership around here.” It takes courage to hold open a multitude of possibilities long enough that new ways of combining them can emerge. There is often great pressure to make a choice, any choice, and move on.
Innovative teams, however, know that integrative decision-making often involves more than simply and mechanically combining ideas. Rather, it requires a willingness to play with ideas and experiments until they “click.” Discoveries emerge through constant iteration, through trying different approaches, including approaches that at first seemed inconsistent, through the involvement of lots of talented people, and through a willingness to wait and see what works and what doesn’t.
History – and not just Hollywood – is littered with star-studded teams that failed. We all know that it’s not easy to get people to collaborate on a straightforward task let alone to create something fresh and useful. Almost all cultures have some version of the saying, “Too many cooks in the kitchen.”
That’s why leadership is the key, cultivating the ability to keep testing possibilities before choosing one and moving ahead. But this is hard work. Given the difficulties, it’s not so surprising that people often choose not to innovate – or, more accurately, that they choose to avoid the challenging activities most likely to produce real innovation. The job of the person leading innovation is to create the conditions that allow and encourage all these things to happen again and again.