Dangers of measuring innovation and creativity

It’s odd that we still fervently (and perhaps religiously) apply industrial-era approaches to digital era challenges. Take the recent uptake of interest in innovation. Hardly a new concept, but one that is now routinely sold as the solution to the problems we face with disruption, speed of change, etc. The thinking is that if we can learn to innovate, we will beat the competition. That simple!! As we would expect, a plethora of “how to innovate” frameworks and processes have, and continue to, hit the market. Conferences and seminars are packed to the rafters. It’s big business – and will get bigger as there’s a big demand.

However, I sense that few organizations will reap significant benefits from their innovation spend. As with just about everything else we’ve seen in the past couple of decades – TQM, Re-engineering, the Learning Organization and even Balanced Scorecards (which I fervently advocate), “failure” rates for innovation efforts will likely hover around the 70-80% levels. I expect nothing else. But why the pessimism?

I sense that few organizations will reap significant benefits from their innovation spend

Requires a holistic approach

Firstly, any change effort has multiple dimensions: leadership, culture, discipline, analytics, etc. The contextualized impact of each must be understood and managed holistically. This is rarely done well and tough to design as a process. This brings me to the second point and to my beef about our compulsion to stuff everything into industrial-era models.

An engineered approach

As I have written about extensively, digital-era companies are still essentially configured to the diktats of F.W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (1911).  Engineer a process with clear and delineated steps, assign individuals accountable for their own specific steps and reward them for their achievement (which by design means punishing those that don’t achieve). Oh, and let’s not forget the most important component – identify the right measures!!!

The role of metrics

We constantly hear people proudly exclaim that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But this adage was coined for a very different age, one where the focus was on Newton-like mechanical cause and effects. Measurement was indeed critical to good management and control of processes.

Now, measures are still important (though I am continually amazed by just how little knowledge of “the science” of measurement exists in the armies of people employed to capture and report on KPIs, but that’s another story) but I would be a tad careful when it comes to the complexities of digital age “processes.” This is particularly pertinent to areas such as innovation.

A Tayloresque approach

When I look at so-called innovation offerings (and I am sure there are exceptions, so I apologize to those that are building solutions in a different way – would love to see them!!) I tend to see the solution boxed in a Tayloresque system.  1) Design the framework, 2) identify sequential process steps to support the framework, 3) manage the process, 4) measure and 5) reward. I might be wrong, but I just don’t think innovation works this way.

Innovation is essentially about creativity. I have zero ideas about how to measure creativity – and am not sure I would want to. Of course, we typically throw words into the innovation process, such as collaboration and teamwork, and say things like, “no idea is a bad idea,” although rewards and measurement would say otherwise (and the resulting promotions and celebrations). Hell, I’ve even seen posters hanging in each corridor of organizations’ head offices that extol staff “to be innovative” or “think creatively.”

Innovation is essentially about creativity. I have zero idea how to measure creativity – and am not sure I would want to.

Scheduling creativity

And as for the idea of scheduling “innovation” workshops or meetings. Do people really believe creativity can be switched on by demand – at 3.00pm this Friday, we are meeting to “innovate,” so bring your “creative” mind with you.

Personally, I get my most creative thoughts while sitting in a bar watching soccer. My best ideas usually hit me around the second pint of Guinness. How that works I have no idea and have no intention of finding out. And I certainly wouldn’t consider giving myself a KPI around “number of creative ideas I have had by my third Guinness.” If I did that, I know the measure would likely always be zero, as my focus would automatically be on delivering to the measure – which would be creatively self-defeating. And herein lies an issue. I strongly believe that tight management and measurement is an innovation/creativity showstopper, or at least has a negative impact on the ideas that come out of the process.

I strongly believe that tight management and measurement is an innovation/creativity showstopper

Encouraging innovation

So how to encourage innovation and creativity? As with most things, it boils down to culture. We need to inculcate a “safe to fail” culture. Innovation is by design risky and the required experimentations imbued with many unknowns. Failure is not uncommon. Indeed, failure often leads to learning and insights that deliver future success. Organizations, and most particularly their senior leadership teams, must embed the conditions that encourage innovation and experimentation to take place – but crucially in an atmosphere where people are not afraid to fail. As someone once said, “Keep punishing your staff for failure and then wonder why nothing extraordinary gets done.”

Keep punishing your staff for failure and then wonder why nothing extraordinary gets done

But the idea of punishment is, sadly, generally viewed as part and parcel of measurement. Failure to hit a target is often punished. Perhaps through withholding bonuses, but also through other systemized mechanisms (promotion, etc.) or just a sense amongst managers and peers that “this person makes mistakes, so be careful.”

I would design KPIs that provide a high-level steer, or stake in the ground, for how “innovation” is progressing, but would be much more interested in what innovation and creativity look like. Create “safe” spaces for people to come together physically or virtually to contribute ideas, thoughts and narratives. In these sessions (which might be scheduled or ad-hoc), I would not seek solutions (innovation and creativity are not “tick-box,” exercises), rather create a place to throw ideas into the mix.

innovation and creativity are not “tick-box,” exercises

As we will always need some structure, I would perhaps organize these according to communities of practice. Many ideas might be suggested. Smart users of advanced analytics might find hidden patterns in all these ideas that might bring useful focus to the disparate ideas and trigger further thinking.

Then, let these ideas settle in people’s minds. Most likely, someone will see how this all comes together while outside of the workshop/meeting: while cooking dinner, watching TV, or sitting in a bar watching sport. When the conscious mind is still, the unconscious tends to get ideas to the surface – and “solutions” just appear!! You cannot manage this.

Parting quotes

Steve Jobs (one of the great innovators of recent times) once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

This is creativity. This is innovation. But returning to my tirade against the continued adherence to Taylorism and the like, I think of two further quotes.

John Maynard Keynes once said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” This is proving a challenge as we sequence from industrial to digital era models of work.

Finally, one of the great thinkers of all time, Albert Einstein, famously had a placard on the wall of his office at Princeton University that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” The Professor understood measurement – its value and, just as importantly, when it is not useful. We would do well to keep in mind these words from Jobs, Keynes and Einstein. Not a bad collection of thinkers to listen to.

About the author

A recognized thought-leading author, trainer and advisor specializing in Strategy Management, The Balanced Scorecard, Leadership & Culture Change, Enterprise Performance Management and Strategic Risk Management.

Extensive experience of leading consulting and training assignments across the world, for both Government and commercial organizations, most notably in the Gulf and Indonesia (as a resident in both) as well as Europe North America, Australia and India.

Author of numerous articles/blogs as well as 24 in-depth research-based management books, including Doing More with Less: measuring, analyzing and improving performance in the government and not-for-profit sector, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, Risk-based Performance Management: integrating strategy and risk management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).