Innovation as Usual: A book review by Bob Morris

Inno as UsualInnovation as Usual: How to Help Your People Bring Great Ideas to Life
Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

How and why the healthiest organizations are those in which pursuit of improvement is constant, tenacious, and collaborative.

Whatever the given circumstances may be, every improvement begins with an idea and there must be continuous improvement of the process by which those ideas are generated. Also, it is imperative to establish and then sustain a workplace environment within which that process is most likely to flourish. Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg understand all that, of course, and wrote this book to explain how and why the healthiest organizations are those in which pursuit of improvement is constant, tenacious, and collaborative. In those organizations, “every single day, people face [and seize] the opportunity to try something new, to do something different from how they did it yesterday.”

In the first chapter, they cite this passage from an HBR article, “The Psychology of Change Management” (June 2003), co-authored by Emily Lawson and Colin Price: “Success depends on persuading hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals to change the way they work, a transformation people will accept only if they can be persuaded to think differently about their jobs. In effect, CEOs must alter the mind-sets of their employees – no easy task.”

We know that most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations and, more often than not, the greatest resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” By nature, innovation – incremental and especially disruptive innovation – requires change. How to create a workplace culture within which innovative thinking and what it produces are most likely to thrive? These are the core behaviors that Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg recommend: Focus on ideas that matter [really matter] to the business, adopt an open business model that enables people connect to the outside world to find original ideas, tweak and challenge but do nit suppress new ideas, select the best ideas and discard all others, and “stealthstorm” past the politics of innovation. With regard to stealthstorming, it means “to pursue innovation in a manner that is compatible with the existing cultural and political realities of the organization.”

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the scope of their coverage.

o The Leader as an Architect of Ideas (Pages 4-7)
o The 5+1 Behaviors of Innovation as Usual (12-23)
o Failure to Focus: A Widespread Barrier (39-42)
o Three Ways to Help People Focus (45-54)
o Three Ways to Connect People to the Outside (62-80)
o Two Ways to Help People Make Their Ideas Better (85-108)
o Make Sure Your Testing Is Real (107-108)
o Four Ways to Improve Idea Selection (115-131)
o Stealthstorming: Five Aspects of Corporate Creativity (136-151)
o Two Ways to Foster Persistence (154-171)

As the titles of these and other sections within the narrative correctly suggest, Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg are world-class empiricists and diehard pragmatists. They are driven by an insatiable curiosity to understand what works, what does, and why, then share what they learn with as many other people as possible. The information, insights, and recommendations in their book provide abundant evidence of that.

In the Epilogue, they provide their final suggestions (make a simple plan now, find a partner, and set up the first meeting before you put down this book), then add: “Most of all, keep it simple. Don’t try to involve three or four people. Start with one or, at most two. Including more than a few people creates a need for formally scheduling meetings, which will kill your momentum.” All of the Fortune 500 companies (oak trees) were once start-ups (acorns) that began with one or two people…and an idea. For them, innovation was their only hope. What was true then remains true now. The best is yet to come and always will be.

I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the material that Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg provide in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how to establish and then sustain a pursuit of improvement that is constant, tenacious, and collaborative, at all levels and in all areas of operation.

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