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This post is based on our podcast episode with Alf Rehn. You can watch the entire conversation here.

Episode #41

Innovation is a term that is as often used as it is misunderstood. To tackle this huge topic, we sat down with professor, speaker, author, advisor, and innovation expert Alf Rehn.

We talked about the role of psychological safety in building an innovative culture, why small improvements may be more important than big ideas, lessons learned from companies like SAS and IKEA, and more.

1. Innovation is for everyone

Alf Rehn emphasizes that innovation isn’t just about groundbreaking technologies or earth-shattering ideas. It’s something accessible to everyone and can be as simple as finding new, practical solutions to everyday problems. He uses the example of taping down cables in a hospital to prevent accidents during surgeries, illustrating that even small, practical changes can have a significant impact and qualify as innovations.

2. The importance of psychological safety

A critical aspect of fostering innovation in any organization is ensuring a culture of psychological safety. This means creating an environment where every employee, regardless of their position, feels safe to share ideas without fear of dismissal or ridicule. Rehn highlights the importance of respectful and open communication, where critique is viewed as a constructive part of the process, not a personal attack. This approach encourages more participation and diverse thinking, leading to a richer pool of innovative ideas.

3. The role of leadership

Leadership plays a pivotal role in nurturing and sustaining an innovation-friendly environment. Leaders should be open to both big and small ideas, and recognize the value in incremental improvements as well as major breakthroughs. Rehn points out the danger of ‘innovation theater’ – where the focus is more on the appearance of innovation rather than its practical implementation and effectiveness. He suggests that leaders should promote a balance, celebrating both the flashy, attention-grabbing innovations and the smaller, less glamorous ones that contribute to the organization’s continuous improvement.

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Watch episode: Alf Rehn – How to create an innovative company

How to create an innovative company – Youtube transcript

This is a conversation with Alf Rehn professor of innovation design and
management at the University of Southern Denmark Alf has written multiple bestselling books given a thousand or so
Keynotes has served as a board member and strategic adviser for everything from new startups to global companies
like Ikea our conversation focused on Innovation something Al has spent a lot of time researching teaching and
thinking about we talked about why Innovation can be something as simple as taping down cables to the floor why
psychological safety is necessary for building an Innovative company culture where small improvements can be more
important and more difficult to make than big ones and a lot more please enjoy this conversation with
Alf Rehn. As I Was preparing for this podcast I was both excited and nervous and for the
Taping down cables to the floor
same reason because the themes that I wanted was kind of hoping that we talk
about our you know creativity Innovation leadership there’re so on one hand are
so important for building successful healthy organizations on the other hand they’re so broad as to you know become
mean everything and nothing and they become watered down and and very abstract and and I know you agree on
that especially as it comes to Innovation so I was hoping we can tackle these things but but tie back to kind of
practical reality um so um yeah let’s if we could start maybe with Innovation
which I think your latest book is on yep so first of all if you could give a
definition is is innovation something that is also accessible to us M morals
or is it you know these Tech gods in Silicon Valley they are the ones responsible for all the innovation in
this economy or what is it and is it something that’s relevant for the broad kind of business Community if you
will a key problem with the term Innovation is of course the fact that it has become valorized it has become
fetishized it has become made in to this humongous big thing and and I don’t
think that was ever the meaning of it or or the intent behind coining the term
innovation in its broadest or most basic form is basically any novel idea that
finds a market actually finds a usage and Market here doesn’t necessarily refer to it having to be a market
economy or a capitalist market so basically anything that’s novel uh that
different and which finds a usage but I but the question is still
relevant because when we are asked to Define innovation we don’t want to just
stop at that rather Bland notion or it’s anything that can just be used and stuff
so instead we start pointing to things doing what we in Academia call ostensive definitions and it’s so super easy to
point at big things it’s the iPhone it’s the Internet it’s Ai and we kind of
point to these humongous things that often aren’t just one Innovation but a bundle of them I mean the internet alone
is just probably a thousand Innovation all crammed together at and of course
this generates the sensation of this is just something for for the true Geniuses
out there but I mean talking to finish audience which obviously we don’t have just in Finish audience when I talk
finish audiences I kind of say uh that in in Finland there exists an innovation that’s really obvious to us and which I
miss tremendously here in my New Hope country of of Copenhagen and that is the fact that on top of a cupboard in uh on
top of the sink in Finland is a cupboard where you can put stuff to dry so it
drops out it’s a it’s a classical thing in that the cupboard on top of the sink
in Finland always has grates so that kind of uh simple small washing up can
be left there to dry out this was Innovation by a a atome mother in
Finland whose name I’m sorry Escapes Me Now should have double checked this before we started recording uh and I say
this of course is an innovation that has helped tremendous amounts of fins and it’s only the vagaries of chance why
this hasn’t been replicated all over so to your question yes Innovation is
something anyone can do anyone actually can contribute to uh in various ways and
we should not kind of think that this is just the the the kind of area for True
Geniuses instead we should think in a more democratic manner about Innovation
so that also the work in supporting Innovation should be kind of considered Innovation
work I I worked a little bit with an a hospital at one point in my
career and and they had this thing where they realized that they had issues with
um um not mortality as such but uh critical instances during operations
errors problems issues that had occurred and this was something that they really kind of focused on and wanted to find
solutions for and they talk to the surgeons obviously because that’s who you always go to and and they proposed
various kinds of complex often technical uh things that could be done uh or
bringing in more surgeons and uh but they really couldn’t pinpoint the problem so so instead they
went and talked to the bosses and the bosses kind of looked at various things and suggested various Solutions which
all tended to be very costly often technological and they couldn’t find a solution and then in a sort of last
chance Last ditch effort they went and talked to the actual nurses in the surgeries and most of them kind of said
oh that’s not my purview that’s not what I was supposed to do and and then one of them said well there’s the cable thing
and they’re going to want what cable thing well the fact is if you look at most of these instances it it’s almost
always connected to the fact that we have these cables on the on the floor of the surgery of the theater uh and um and
uh we’ve talked about getting something to kind of uh stop people from tripping over them uh and and in fact it’s the
tripping bit is almost always what instantiates the issue a surgeon kind of you bump into a surgeon he Nicks
something and so on and we kind of all look around and went oh yeah but we can do that we can
just put uh kind of tape them down or put something on top like you do uh often in in Road works so uh and they
saw that and immediately uh critical instance neural surgeries went down now
is this a story about Innovation taping down loose cables really doesn’t sound like like an
innovation but it was an instance of an idea that was novel in that setting
because nobody had taped them down or secured them before that was adopted and which actually generated value because
not having people tripping around in a surgery is valuable at least to the PE person being operated upon so what we
need to kind of rethink is not just what is innovation but who do we talk to who
do we listen to and are we prepared to do those little things that might
actually improve uh kind of the the manner in which we work and generate
value through this often little incremental improvements in a workspace
Small improvements over big ideas
are far more valuable than spending 18 months pondering how can we get an AI uh
to do something or or how can we digitize something else so my advice to
companies is always well make sure your cables are tied down first uh make sure
people aren’t tripping unnecessarily and then we can come back and talk about the big AI driven or whatever Innovation you
would like got it so essentially I mean you’re saying for a company that’s thinking
about let’s just to use the example of AI and how they can use that Innovation is more likely to look like one employee
figuring out how to use chat GPT to automate some basic workflow that they
have in the company as opposed opposed to management team going abroad thinking
deeply for weeks on end about their AI strategy for the next 12 year 12 months
which no one knows even what’s going to happen in the next six months is that kind of how how how to think about it
sure but also that we have a tendency within the Innovation discourse to to
always be so wedded to the latest and the greatest Technologies and and whilst I’m a big AI
proposed I’m kind of continuously finding myself these days kind of reminding people hey
it doesn’t need to be an AI solution sure if you find somebody in the organization that’s figured out a clever
hack or a clever way to use that let’s run with it it’s lovely that’s one fantastic but instead of kind of forcing
us to kind of all oh we need to make more AI Innovations start to go around
and and talk to people and see what are your actual problems and do you have suggestions for
Solutions I I tended to say and I sort of still say that I have never met an
organization that lacks innovative ideas and then I joked around that and I
worked with the tax Authority and the police force uh but my point there was that a
lot of innovative ideas disappear in organizations because they don’t come from the rightl looking people you know
the the cool kids with their tight jeans and their their funky eyeglasses or that
they don’t look like Innovation they don’t feel like Innovation they don’t kind of connect to the latest hype in
technology or something similar uh sometimes and that’s sort of what the my
cable story tries to point out sometimes it’s so easy as using gaffa tape uh
where gaffa tape wasn’t used before uh and what a lot of innovation
managers kind of battle is on one one hand we want to have the flashy stuff we
want to have the sexy stuff we want to have things to show because it’s so cool
when we have a new AI solution or a new sustainable technology or or we can use
big terms like circular economy around something but quite often whilst we’re
doing that people are cursing over why isn’t this damn basic thing that I have
to work with all the time why isn’t still is why isn’t it’s still working the way it’s supposed
to uh I mean even my own office at uh the the University of Southern Denmark
uh we had a super fancy house uh one of the problems is we have a super fancy front door as well automated and all
this uh it’s broken a lot of the time and I’m kind of going yeah how can we
claim to to be an Innovative University when we can’t make our front door work
so so let’s focus on getting the basics right first after that yeah I’m game
going on an AI vacation and and sitting and and kind of thinking big thoughts but let’s get uh the front door working
let’s make sure that nobody’s tripping when they don’t need to after that we can talk about the big
ideas that that makes sense given that you’ve been in contact and you’re
Company culture and psychological safety
continuously in contact with so many different companies and organizations is there anything that stands out um in
terms of patterns when it comes to the companies or organizations that are really good at this continuously letting
these small improvements taping down the cables Bubble Up and then be solved how
how did is it a matter of culture is it process is leadership what’s the driving
force it’s always culture actually that’s my a to everything it’s always
culture because uh I don’t believe that ideas are the problem there are
always ideas uh people generate ideas even though you try to tell them to stop
even though they try to stop themselves we still We Can’t Stop we always generate ideas the processes which a lot
of innovation researchers spent inordinate amount of time trying to figure out they’re not that
difficult start with supporting with small sums continue if things go well I mean it’s not rocket s science
Innovation management is is frankly it’s made out to be this big thing but it’s
it’s actually just common sense but what happens in a lot of organizations is that there are toxic
cultures where only some people get their voices heard and where a lot of people have tried to bring up ideas but
have been kind of yawned out of the room that is met by yawns and shrugs and are
now no longer interested in contributing so the kind of
organization that that is capable both of incremental innovation of of doing
those little good things and of radical Innovation that is finding entirely novel ways of of working or solving
something uh they actually look very much alike and the re the basic thing
that kind of sets them apart is not something fancy it’s something that should be self-evident in all
organizations and that is psychological safety and a civil conversation or
respectful conversations that is an a culture where everyone feels they have a
right to be heard where the little mousy secretary feels that he or she can can
kind of stand up and speak in the meeting or where the people on the floor of the factory feel that they can come
and and give their input and where all ideas no matter what they they sound
like At first on no matter who brings them are met by respect and civility
that people don’t just yawn and and walk out the room when the wrong person
speaks or the wrong idea is aired but where there is a a respectful relationship and this does not mean an
uncritical relationships because and this is something that I bang on all the
about all the time critique is not disrespectful on the contrary critique
is one of the most respectful things we can imagine and I always have this little scenario I kind of air for people
imagine you spent your weekend thinking of something you have this idea you really want to bring this to the company
you you started think about this on Friday on Sunday you’re you’re convinced this is fantastic you can’t wait to get
back to that Monday morning meeting and you come to the Monday morning meeting and you present your idea and the result
is nothing silence people just look at you dead in the face dead in the eyes
take a second sip of coffee no response compare that to a second scenario
everything else has been alike you come there Monday morning you come to a meeting you present your idea and the
first thing that happens is somebody says interesting I have three questions and I believe there’s a problem here
here and here which one is more respectful towards the idea we know it’s
the second one critique is respectful because critique takes the idea seriously it has listened it has thought
it counters and also critique is an opening to a dialogue of I’m going to
ask you a question and you can then respond I’m going to criticize part of it and you can rebut my criticism now we
have something going now we can actually work with the idea that silence which is
so common in many organization but uh there might be a little extra Touch of finnishness in it well as well uh that
one is the killer that one is the one if you’ve met that once you’re very wary of
bringing the second idea if you met it twice you’ve learned that there is no point if you met it three times you’re
prepared to go on pension or or uh just go home and start drinking uh silence is
the killer not critique yeah I I I think it’s one thing that
happens I feel is that management becomes unaware of the power Dynamic and
the fact that you know we feel um talking you know whether it’s Bard or
CEO or whoever it is that yeah we have a culture where everyone can speak up because I feel comfortable sharing my
ideas openly but the person lowest in the the organization doesn’t necessarily share that share that so I think that’s
that’s one big kind of blind spot and another what I’m hearing when we talk about psychological safety is that it
really comes down to the very smallest things like it’s it’s not enough for us to say oh this is how we’re going to you
know these are the words that we’re this is how we talk about ideas this is how we the process when someone brings
something up this is how we respond it could be something as little little as a kind of glance the wrong glance could
tell someone that oh I don’t take what you’re saying seriously it’s like it’s very small things and then my question
becomes if so if if culture is what really matters it has all these
Downstream effects on Innovation and excellent operational excellence whatever it is and the input in the
culture are obviously the people and for people to act to create that
psychologically safety they need to be emotionally healthy they need to be stable they need to be mature they need
to have the knowledge about how they’re impacting their you know how they how their words and actions are impa
expecting others and so on and so forth how do we how do we create the culture
how do we get the people to create the culture that we need in order to be let’s say just
Innovative that that is of course that’s the Holy Grail that is uh if if I had a
quick podcast friendly answer to that I wouldn’t be on podcasts because I would be so insanely wealthy that I would have
Elon Musk as my butler um not I’m sure I don’t think could make a good Butler but anyway I could do it just for for the
giggles um no I mean it is a tremendously big question and how do we do it and I I kind of said well we have
to start from the little things uh I mean the first thing is uh to realize
that these small cultural things the shrug the sideways glance and these that these actually
matter uh in in research for instance on racism and and inequality we speak speak
of microaggressions that uh the manner in which we kind of uh uh kind of laugh at
certain things because they feel culturally uh that they don’t fit can actually be a microaggression and that
is sort of how how we keep certain people down I want often want to extend
this and say well microaggression isn’t just about uh race or or ethnicity or uh
uh about gender they can exist in in various forms and uh and I’ve met many
many organizations where mic progressions uh were definitely the
problem so the first step is of course to to understand this uh and to call
that out uh sometimes when I do key notes I I and it’s too long a story to
tell here but but I kind of REM remind people of I once saw a very very good uh
female uh interim CEO uh throw a person out of the room room for yawning too
much uh and that seems a really cruel thing to do because a yawn is of course a very human uh response you could be
tired and so on but she she marked in the meeting that he seemed to be yawning every time uh a woman particularly young
woman try to present a new idea and uh that that if he was so tired to listen
to women uh he could bug her off and it was very kind of dramatic thing to do
and afterwards I kind of went up to and said what what was that about uh and she said well yeah
everyone’s going to call me a uh after this but they already do uh so that doesn’t change anything but I might
be gone from here in a couple of years but it’s going to be a decade until somebody dares yawn in a meeting again
and I love that because she she kind of went in as a leader she she signaled
something she said yeah we’re not going to do be doing this we’re we’re if you’re too tired in a meeting don’t come
to the meeting if you’re just going to sit there and laugh or yawn or shrug or whatever that’s not on uh so she called
out a toxic set of behaviors maybe in a slightly too radical way but at least
she did something uh and uh I myself uh have
started doing the fact if I yawn in a meeting for instance which I do a lot because I sit in too many meetings um I
I apologize say listen listen that wasn’t against you I’m feeling a little tired love the idea keep going I mean I
check myself before I wreck myself uh I I try not to kind of do the
microaggressions and if I do something that could be interpreted as a microaggression uh I try to kind of call
it out and say Hey listen yeah we all yawn we we all shrug we might all have a
rest resting face but that but as long as we have that conversation going
as long as we can can talk about it we can still generate an a culture of
psychological safety where where these completely normal behaviors do not kind
of become toxic do not become repeated do not become kind of the the problem
that they can become got it do you have any examples
um whether from you know observation or your practical experience of organization that have been able to
implement these things and go from you know let’s say their average when it comes to psychological safety or or
these things and then just by implementing some of these practices and creating awareness around it they’ve
been able to radically change the culture and as a result of that then also have all these positive Downstream
effects Innovation new ideas experimentation and so on I do but uh
I’m I’m always wary that we start treating these as kind of magic
beams uh what I have seen uh in various uh kind of organizations particularly
when new CEOs come in uh is that a new leader uh start taking these issues
seriously start calling them out starts talking about them introduces kind of new conversations about them and that
this overtime because culture is one of the slowest moving things in the
world that this over time creates more creative more Innovative
cultures uh I think if you for instance look at the the Nordic company St
Eno uh this is a company that’s uh for a long time felt and and self-identifies
as very conservative rather traditional and so on but they’ve done a tremendous amount of work trying to kind of change
this to create a culture of kind of being more open to ideas testing out
stuff paying attention to diversity issues and all these all the things I talk about now did that immediately
change them flip them from an old traditional basically paper mill company
to a new bio materials of course not of course not and they’re still in the
process uh it takes decades to to enact true deep
change but the they have been on a tremendously positive path I’m sure
they’ve uh stumbled at times I’m sure they made errors but what we have to
remember with Innovation all in part Innovation but also Innovation cultures
it’s a marathon not a Sprint if you imagine that it can be changed with a
kind of twomon focus project you’re going to fail yeah you might get some
some fun proofs of cont concept out of it and you might get something nice to put out of social media will it truly
change the organization at its cultural core of course not I mean the very idea
is ridiculous uh creating an innovation culture is sort of like raising a
child uh there it’s going to take about 20 years uh you’ll stumble along the way
but there’s going to be a lot of fun in there as well and with kids were very
good at accepting this we look at our children and uh we
sometimes kind of uh think about how slow the process is and my God still
can’t put in new toilet paper when they take the last piece or still haven’t learned how the dishwasher works uh but
over time they tend to end out great because with our children we have patience we we understand that we can’t
just stand there Shout shouting at them and Shout louder when when uh they they
fail on something uh and we accept that it takes time un is saying we need to
have exactly the same sense when it comes to building Innovation cultures and no I’m not saying it will always
take 20 years you can create improvements in a week you can create big improvements in six months you can
bring tremendous change in a year but in the big picture you can’t imagine that
these kind of focused things uh would be all that you need instead we need the
radical patience to to allow culture to develop over time into something greater
and uh and there I think that the analogy to Children might seem a little odd but but I’m saying if we can raise
children we can build good organizations uh and if we took a little
bit of that patient and understanding and love we have towards our children even when they can
be real when they are teens and pre- teams just like our the people in
our company can be uh if we took a little bit of that into the work place
we could do so much good yeah I totally totally agree with
that I think you made a really good case that culture is the starting point for
The processes and incentives that lead to innovation
any any real attempt at at true and Lasting Innovation what role would you
say that say processes incentives and systems play I’m thinking specifically
that companies like things that are measurable that are predict predictable that are linear and Innovation I’m
guessing can look very different it’s random it’s not easily it’s not immediately obvious the value and and
it’s it’s just messy so how does a company create in Innovation and and
another thing that I’m thinking may be attention is the need for
standardization so companies that are delivering you I’m I’m thinking about as
as an example uh there our lovely uh train operator here in Finland um they
have one need which is to drive a lot of trains on time and get the goods and
people where they need to go and that at least to me as a user is the core like
if they’re if they’re able to innovate and bring in new features and make the trip a bit more pleasant and improve
convenience and comfort I’m all for that but um punctuality trumps all all the
other things so how does an organization who has you know they have clients with existing needs they have uh products
that they need to ship services that they need to deliver and maintain a high level of of of quality and satisfaction
how do they combine that uh with with innovation and how do they set up the system that allow Innovation to to even
U to flourish or to even exist okay that’s I think was was that seven
questions or or or was yeah that was a lot of questions no take you take one you want
that there are there are very very good points in there and big points difficult
points uh let me start with with the process bit because that is it’s of
course true uh a lot of executives are trained uh in in kind of creating
processes and optimizing processes some of them are process Engineers so so that
gets even more enhanced so so it’s natural uh that gets there there I I
kind of tend to say well you wouldn’t have the same process for hiring as you would for the production of carbolic
acid or whatever I mean you it is natural that we have different processes for different functions and the error we
do is that we imagine that Innovation is always the same process that is it’s the
same thing when we know sometimes it’s a technological process solving something
technologically which might require combining Technologies in an entirely new way sometimes it’s purely social as
in taking a way of working from one context to another sometimes it’s a
really messy comination of the two so imagine that the same process could C cover everything from the the kind of
incremental Innovations in on a factory floor to major changes in business
models I mean that’s that makes absolutely no sense to me uh so rather
than thinking there needs to be a process to go okay so so what is the meta process uh but also what process is
there in place place to ensure that process doesn’t become the enemy that is
uh we we often kind of over engineer these things to to make them uh safe and
and clear and and in a your comp in the company you mentioned uh finish rail uh
the thing is of course that a lot of the process is focused on never admit uh
never allowing errors everything needs to work and as anyone who’s used Finnish
Realm knows it doesn’t uh but um but their Pro their problem is that they
have over engineered things to the point where novel things that actually might work won’t get tested because they
threatened the process itself so that’s part of it uh another part is which is
kind of connected to this is uh we believe that the process needs to be the same with little things as with big
things when I was a young young man which granted as many years ago now uh I
had this this very simplistic idea that yeah yeah but but it must be sort of
like it’s at home if I want to do a little thing at home such as fix the
sink uh and then then that’s very easily done uh normally very fairly cheap uh
you just go and do it and and it’s done and if there’s something bigger like building a new sound system uh I need to
kind of really think about the investment and check it with my partner and and see how it fits with other
things and I thought that was how it worked in companies as well in companies works the definitely works the other way
that is the big issue in a lot of companies it’s so much easier to get a
million euro to do a really kind of big complex project testing something that
it is to get 5,000 to do a quick experiment uh or fix something that
everyone agrees should be fixed because when it’s a million euros there’s a process for that there is a committee
which sits with a budget and when it’s 5,000 EUR everyone just looks at everyone else and go well I don’t have
that money do you have that money I don’t have that Authority do you have that Authority so a thousand things get
undone uh and I have a story from back in the day of SAS the airline which
today obviously is in a lot of trouble this was the days when it actually revamped itself to become one of the
most beloved Airlines on the planet and I happened to know the guy who run uh
the service design or basically was head of service or or even of strategy uh for
the company uh and he said that well uh one of the big big problems uh was of
course that they they’re very Pro very structured processes so once the air hostesses and say listen when we let in
people who come fly in business class they bring in a lot of money we can’t be standing in the galley cutting lemons so
yeah it takes away from cutting lemons but you cut the lemons later you stand in the doorway and greet people by name
if possible uh because that is better service and if somebody during uh the
flight has an issue a noise that their personal favorite brand of beer isn’t
available on that specific flight you have uh money in the till take the money
solve the problem that is if if it requires giving them €20 uh as
compensation because they they get R do that it’s with Euro it doesn’t matter it’s their ticket costed costed so much
more that if you can fix something with €20 do it this got customer satisfaction rates
at SAS this little thing telling air hostesses smile first cut lemons later
and if you can fix something with €20 fix it with2 this alone got their customers at
faction skyrocketing May made it for a while the
preferred U Airline for the business traveler and the point here being we so
often miss out because we don’t have a process for the little things for the €
20 thing for the € 1,000 EUR thing for the 5,000 thing because most leaders
don’t think the little things matter but they do in fact most Innovations start
out at tremendously little things I forgot what the other questions
were already but uh I remember that you said something about incentives and here kind of this ties in
to each other so first don’t over engineer second get the little things right before the B and third incentives
are deeply misunderstood people think that incentives are always the fact of of get
people more money give people more salary give people uh often that is not
the incentive people are looking for and when I say that people think I’m I’m going to say something but they want to
do something meaningful that’s not the problem either so I worked a little bit with
Ikea and Ikea is of course a beloved company for many reasons and and they have a tremendously good culture and uh
there’s a lot of things to admire and they they make more money than God I mean they they’re ridiculously
successful in that sense but there is one thing that is problematic with inside Ikea and even
though I have an NDA I believe I can actually say this because it’s the same as in so many other companies and it’s
the fact it’s not a money problem uh in Ikea if you want to get money to T Test out something uh yeah
you probably need to go ask permission but the money will be there I know people inside Ikea who have sat with
tremendous amounts of innovation budget but what they lack is time most people in Ikea are running
ragged because they simply they they’re so successful they simply cannot hire quickly enough so I know of cases where
people in Ikea have sent money back because they never found the time to do the
project uh and whenever I come into a company and they say oh but we have this Innovation budget of X millions of Euro
uh and we haven’t even been able to use I say well I see the problem right here you think that that in itself solves the
problem that you just throw money at it how easy is it for a person in your
company to take a week off and just work on their kind of uh idea and they look
at me as I’ve is as if I asked can I kill your children or something take a
week off of course they can’t we no no no no we have customers we have
deadlines said yeah sure okay so so let me make it simple for you uh how easy is
it for somebody to take uh basically an afternoon off just a day dream and now
they look like I didn’t just kill their children now I want to kill their pets as well
Daydream day of course they can’t take after to daydream the very idea is ridiculous and
I say well I’ve solved your problem right now you said nobody can have time off to actually do an innovation project
and they can’t even have enough time to think of an innovation project and you think that just because you have a pile
of money you’ve solved the problem and then I don’t say you’re idiots
but that’s sort of what I’m thinking in my head because the incentive put most
most people want is a chance to test a chance to have some time extra time to
to try something out the that little window of Freedom where they can kind of go yeah I don’t need to care about that
deadline right now I don’t need to care about the report I could just lie down in a sofa and daydream about a way to
solve this problem that’s been nagging me for the last three years in this company that’s the incentive they want a
little bit of free and a little bit of time I love that so I mean essentially
The role of leadership
we’ve covered culture processes and incentives needed to kind of create
Innovation is there anything missing from the I think that’s a pretty good that’s a pretty good place to start but
is there anything else that you kind of like if you get involved with a company and some kind of Engagement um is there
anything else that’s like very high up on your checklist of of of of things that you look for
well there there are of course tons of things and and what people misunderstand
about kind of innovation project or innovation work in an organization is it’s can be a lot slower when we talk
about here it’s easy to kind to throw out this big big ideas and then big big Notions uh and it can actually be a lot
more dull boring we don’t we don’t associate that work with with the term boring but it can be about double
checking and checking again is are are we taking care of the culture
are we taking care of the time issues are we spotting new problems that I might not have a time to kind of address
here so so it is as I said before it’s a marathon not a race uh but if I were to pick one
thing it’s of course the issue of leadership uh which we haven’t really addressed here so long because in the
end it always does come down sooner or later to a leader and whilst I still
maintain the culture is the most important thing leadership is very Central to a
culture uh what the issue tends to be is
that I’ve never met a leader who doesn’t love Innovation or more precisely I haven’t
met a leader yet who doesn’t love to show off Innovation uh leaders tend to be really
Keen to show their coolest projects and oh this is our new AI chat bot oh look
here we’ve done this really cool thing and so on and that is of course admir admirable and understandable they should
be enthusiastic they they should love that kind of stuff however what can be lost in this is that
because often people want to impress their leaders and impress their CEOs and so on uh
the performative aspects of all this and performative is a very academic word for
it but um the showoff effects or sometimes we talk about Innovation
theater so the theatrical effects uh are often enhanced in
organizations if you want to be promoted in your normal large corporation it’s
actually more important to look Innovative than to be Innovative and I know that’s a harsh thing to say but but
it’s true so I’m going to say it anyway so I’ve seen a lot of people be promoted
simply because they used the right words had really flashy PowerPoints uh and knew that uh it’s
more important that your Innovation project looks good than it actually works in
practice uh and the reason for this is that uh leaders don’t always have the
possibility or the patience or the time because a lot of leaders are or pressed for time as well to to really kind of
follow the whole path of innovation from that really weak first idea all the way
to when it becomes so normalized so standardized so almost mundane that it’s
all forgotten that this actually was an innovation so so sometimes leaders make this Miss This Big Arc and instead kind
of look at the flash points and I’ve been through many many
corporate headquarters and been shown these big show of projects here’s our
accelerator uh here’s our incubator here’s our lab here’s our
moonshot all these kinds of words and and I get shown beautiful wonderful
things and then sooner or later somebody kind of sidles up to me and goes Whispers because they don’t want the
boss to hear you know that it never worked don’t you I’m to go yeah I
guess I sort of figured that out and I think I think there is a place for
Innovation theater I mean uh we we it’s easy to condemn but I think there’s a place for this performance uh uh it’s
sort of we need a little bit of Glam and Glitz and glamour into our lives uh so
so I don’t believe that companies should completely stop celebrating things that look good and and are flashy and sexy
and and so on but we shouldn’t kind of get Bewitched by these either and think
that this is all the to it and we should be careful that the culture doesn’t
learn that it’s more important how it looks than how it works um because there are many many
organizations but that sadly is the fact and leaders and I’ve said this to
leaders leaders should be just as Keen to promote the sometimes boring or less
impressive little things uh as they are of showing off this this kind of really
uh glitzy stuff uh and um one place
where where I kind of really think they they’ve done well here is the group today known as the strawberry group so
the hotel group run by this uh diminutive Norwegian billionaire that
seems to be on path to owning all the all the hotels in the nordics because they really have a
culture in which the little things matter and which they pay attention to the little things and I’ve shared a
stage at their big events internal events with their CEO where he can take
out this tiniest little thing somebody has done in just one of the smaller
hotels and say this person and I won’t give exact examples here because again I
don’t want to take away anyone’s Thunder uh but he he can come on stage and say
listen I went to this hotel and at their breakfast bouet they had this guy and he
figured out a way how to get the the waffles extra crispy and I love
those waffles and then everyone kind of cheers that somebody noticed that
somebody made the waffles extra crispy and that this could be made a key point
at their big annual event that’s Brilliance because that communicates
that it’s not just the big flashy show off it things sometimes it’s just taping
down those cables or making those waffles extra crispy I I think that’s a great way to
tie this whole our whole conversations on uh conversation on Innovation together and I suppose that that to your
last point that requires leaders who are not just concerned about their own
careers and advancements which we all are but also actually care about the end product the end use or the customer and
wanting to deliver exception service and quality it’s not easy being a leader in
a fast moving world and and here I also want to kind of make it clear that I’m
not trying even though I can be a little snarky and and critical at times in these comments I don’t want to kind of
go out and point fingers a lot of leaders the reason they get attracted to
Innovation theater and the reason that they sometimes over engineer things is because there’s so many demands on them
it’s because they’re asked to do the impossible they’re asked to take great chances take great risks experiment
whilst making sure that there are no risks uh that everything works uh and
that the the Machinery uh kind of keeps chugging along as it always did so
they’re they’re being asked to do something deeply paradoxical deeply contradictory and will there be errors
along the way yes absolutely there will but again it’s a marathon not a Sprint
so just as we should uh pay attention to the little things we should also
paradoxically be able to ignore the little stumbles that is yeah sometimes a CEO
will be really fascinated by some Innovation theater that’s okay that’s
okay we can we can live with that as long as that doesn’t become the only thing they’re fascinated by and as long
as they can kind of correct those little stumbles over the long Arc of making
actually an Innovative organization that’s that’s really good
and um you’ve written a book about the Paradox of leadership we won’t have time to get into that but uh I’ll thank you
so much it’s been a pleasure to get you know get it take take apart a little bit of of your wisdom and I feel like we met
at least my criteria of of getting some really practical things um on on a topic
that can often be well performance and theater
um well it’s been a pleasure to be here yes and for people who want to follow you you’re are a very active uh thinker
is it LinkedIn um or or where where’s the best place threads uh Instagram my
web page I I kind of I’m I’m platform agnostic although a lot less active on
Twitter these days for obvious reasons got it so I’ll I like the LinkedIn and and the website at the very
least in in the show notes thank you so much Alf uh it’s been a pleasure and uh
good good luck with everything you got going on hope that the year is full of innovation and creativity and challenges
and and progress for you thank you thank you for listening you can find
all episodes of the growth pod on Spotify YouTube and apple

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