This year will be fascinating from a business perspective. We hope that we will get over the current third wave of the pandemic, which is often very aggressive, and everybody can start to concentrate on the future. We will have many things to settle in both our private and professional lives. Innovation will come to the forefront in both areas. Have you thought about what innovation means? Is it a universal term that means the same thing for everybody? What do professionals mean when they say that 2021 will be the year of “sensible innovation”?
The test of innovation
I vividly remember the beginning of my career at one of the most successful and recognised multinational law firms. We had brainstorming sessions on a regular basis, where everybody could share their ideas, mainly regarding how the company’s activities could be developed. I loved these meetings because, besides the fact that we worked and created new things, it all happened in a good atmosphere, under looser conditions. These events also functioned as teambuilding get-togethers, as they always ended up in lengthy discussions. However, nobody regretted it. The company’s management was known for applying the motivational tools at the right time and place, so they supported this process as well. The colleague coming up with the most ideas was awarded the “most innovative colleague” title, and they also got a token sum of money. As we were young, everybody was extra motivated to come up with new ideas from one month to another in order to attract others’ attention, which had a positive effect on our careers. Time went by, and after the first positive period – following my own way of thinking – I started to take stock of the number of ideas created by management. I also started to track how many ideas coming from the awarded colleagues reached the phase of implementation. It added up to an interesting sum. The results showed that about 2 or 3 ideas were applied in business annually from the dozens of ideas mentioned. However, it was more interesting that none of these ideas came from the awarded colleagues. At the age of 23, I drew the logical conclusion: the brainstorming meetings made no sense, at least from the organisational development perspective.
I felt compelled, and also eager, to tell my superiors about my discovery at once, so I asked the company leader for a meeting. It was a pretty open company, and such meeting requests were usually granted. Because I indicated that I wanted to talk about the brainstorming process, I received an appointment quite quickly. I went to the office of the company leader, who had 30 years of experience, and I explained my views to him. I proudly highlighted the problems and weaknesses of the process. He listened to me carefully with no reaction. Once I finished the first part of what I wanted to say, he added only, “look, this process has been working like this for 22 years now”. I did not understand the sign and continued with the “why we should change it” argument, and he smiled. At that point, the situation seemed to be suspicious to me, and my enthusiasm waned. Then he asked the following question: “Were there ideas that we executed?” My answer was obviously yes. “Could you tell me which colleagues the ideas came from that were implemented? Do you find a common point in them?” As I precisely followed the processes, I could answer at once, and said that from those people who were more introverted and not very communicative. Then he continued. “There are people who have several ideas and believe that this is innovation itself. They are wrong. There are people who believe that we can only move forward with perfectly thought out and tested ideas. They are wrong as well. For organisational development, we need to follow the path that cuts between these two directions”. I am not saying that this answer did not surprise me, but I accepted it. However, I had one more question left. “Isn’t it unfair that those colleagues who receive the “most innovative colleague” title are those whose ideas will not be realised, and those people who produce really promising ideas get no reward?” I got another surprising retort. “Do you think they are not rewarded? For them, acknowledgement means that their ideas were realised. They know that this is how things work, and they do not care about titles”. I could not stop, even though now it would probably have been wise, so I asked another question. “Why are you so sure that they think so?” The answer hit hard. “I asked them myself in every case. You should do it as well if you want to see the big picture. However, I do appreciate that you want to do something for the company, so you will receive the reward that motivates you the most. Thank you”. I snuck out of the room and stopped questioning the brainstorming process.