Keeping innovation alive and thriving

This has been a question I have been wrestling with for a long time- what is stopping innovation to take place in organizations? I have made a little list for myself that is a helpful tool to see if there is an open door for changes or not. I have worked with organizations that have strongly refused changes and learned that there are some things that these organizations have in common that are hindering the innovative process.  Here are some questions to ask yourself and consider what might be getting in the way of your organization’s innovation and development:

  1. John Maxwell says that everything stands and falls on leadership. I cannot agree more, so what kind of leadership is in place in the organization?
  • Is it a leadership that wants to please everyone? To makes changes you have to make some decisions that are not pleasing to everyone. People seek the comfortable and known in life, but in all of that we also lose some of the edge we need to be able to create something new. Change has some aspect of it that is painful. It is similar to starting to losing weight or starting at the gym. Its not fun when you are on your treadmill and the person next to you runs like he has never done anything else in life and you can hardly keep up walking. But if you want to get in better shape you go through it and eventually you become more energized, have a different perspective on life and feel better. The process of change is similar and leaders who want to please everyone will fail to get people on board as many will say change is not needed, being happy with the status quo.  
  • Has the leadership position become part of the leader’s identity?  l have known leaders who have been in leadership so long that they feel they have to carry all the burden and responsibility of the organization by themselves. In reality they are finding their identity and often some safety in their position. This kind of leader will fight change as it becomes a personal threat to their position and the life they know. 
  • What is the leadership’s commitment to change, and even more, their motivation for it? This needs to be determined because change is painful; it will cost something and will take energy. How committed are you? What is your motivation for change? Are you a part of something that is dying? There are two motivations I seem to find, one is “we are dying and we need to do something” and the other, which I enjoy working with is “we are on the bottom now but we have something in our organization that is important, so how can we get to a better place?” 


2. For innovation to happen you need room to fail. What is the working environment around in the organization? Are people fearful of doing their job? Is there a high level of blame, like “he did, she said”? Room for failure is something great because without it you cannot be innovative or creative. Not everything will work and not every idea that you pursue or try will fly but if you don´t try you will never know. In organizations with a high level of innovation there is room for failure and there is always someone cheering you on as you do and helping you back on your feet. 

3. Can you locate/spot the influencer who is really running the organization? Under point 1 we talked about leadership but I have also seen that organizations can have strong people or even groups that are setting an agenda. Locating this invisible power is important to be able to bring forward the needed changes. This can be a very passive group or individual and often they will lobby against changes or even have such a strong word that they veto all leadership decisions just by speaking what they think. By taking the time to find these people and groups you can also create strong allies if they are let in on the plans, getting ownership and understanding the need for innovative processes. They can be good friends and help to implement the change. 

4. All organizations have good ideas and many of them have noble work. But the question is never about the idea or what the organization doing. These things can be good to talk about and to evaluate but they are not the crucial issue.  The crucial issue or question to ask is- is there is an entrepreneur within the ,? This person is someone that is not satisfied with how things are and wants to change them. If there is no one who can see a need for change it might be best to walk away because it will only be a matter of time before change will take place and it will be something forced upon them.

5. Is there freedom to speak?  What I have found as a stimulator to innovation is that there must to be freedom of speech, thoughts and processing. As soon as no one is willing to speak up because the boss is present, a culture is being revealed that speaking up is look down on and people are just following blindly. All innovation comes from steps of brainstorming together, questioning together and moving forward with the right idea. Leaders that are afraid of other people’s ideas will always run in to mediocrity, poor outcomes and stop the innovative process. The secret to innovative process is to add to one another’s ideas, to process information freely and to have a desire for the team to win. Good leaders involve all people of the organizations on one level or another. They understand that it is not about presenting a finished idea but rather having people add to it to it to make the organization great. As I have written before, the most critical person on your team can be the key for your product and process to succeed because they may be sitting on the greatest unleashed potential.  Giving room for brainstorming, feedback and togetherness make innovation so powerful, but only truly secure and inclusive leaders will get there.

6. The last point of my list for innovation is, what is the culture of the organization? Some organizations have it in their DNA that they want to change, be cutting edge and lead the way. Others have more of a DNA of protecting what they have, upholding values and facilitating what is already in place. Our culture is one of the most important things when it comes to innovative processes. We can have cultures where there is “a cutting edge” feeling to it but they have been held up by circumstances, often with the wrong leader in the wrong position or lack of leadership that has the ability to cast vision or dream about new things. But the underlining culture is that people are ready to go and leaders are waiting for something to happen. In other organizations I have worked with there is skepticism about everything new and different that can change the path that has been working for years. In my experience, when things are not working, the underlining culture is that it is better to be where we are than to do something new because new seems to be dangerous and unknown. 

I am sure you can add to this list but what I see is that if we don´ t consciously live in an environment of innovation we will get stuck in old ways. We naturally become preservers of what has been and not what can become. Leaders who have the ability to think, dream and strategize for new things and let an innovative culture flourish in their midst have the best chance to build sustainable organizations. My hope is to see more innovative environments in organizations and churches all around so that we can bring what we have, traditions and cultures, and bring them in to the modern age. Then we will see growth like never before!

Rune Saether 

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