Author: Alf Rehn, Professor of Innovation, Design and Management at the University of Southern Denmark
17 Apr 2019
Innovation is a more insidious word than you might think – a word that represents wonderful things, but can also evoke sensations of fatigue and anxiety. In fact, one of the key challenges for corporations is knowing how to ensure their capacity for development isn’t killed by ‘innovation stress’.
Stress can best be described as a reaction to a mismatch between demands and resources. When a person, team or organisation feels the resources available to them are insufficient to perform to the expected level, stress surfaces. While this is a well-known fact throughout business, organisations frequently fail to discuss how innovation – and the demand for continuous progress – can generate such stress.
Making demands without setting clear targets or providing the necessary time and resources is a recipe for stress. This is particularly true when it comes to innovation, as it’s a vague concept that is difficult to measure and holds limitless potential. The latter fact may seem like a positive, but it also means that no matter how innovative an idea is, it could have been more innovative still. As a result, calls to innovate can seem endlessly demanding.
A wise CEO pays attention to innovation stress, especially as it is a drain on their organisation with attendant risks to employee health. Further, innovation stress damages the capability of a company; by handling it badly, a business will never achieve its innovation capabilities, nor get the full return on its investment into research and development. Here, we explore five ways to tackle innovation stress in the workplace.
Make expectations clear
As outlined in my book, Innovation for the Fatigued: How to Build a Culture of Deep Creativity, a typical case of innovation stress occurs when a CEO insists on having the organisation deliver pioneering ideas without offering clear instructions regarding the expected result or the necessary resources. Do you want new products to replace old offerings? State this. Do you want better margins, regardless of whether this comes from new business models or process innovation? State this clearly.
By normalising the prospect of failure – and even celebrating ambitious experiments that were unsuccessful – you can remove the drama and anxiety related to innovation
Nothing makes people more stressed and afraid to engage with innovation than having to guess as to what kind of innovative thinking is expected of them. That’s not to say you should stop setting ambitious goals, but you must communicate to the team what is expected of them.
Use relatable examples
While references to Tesla or Google may seem apposite when talking about radical innovation, they can also make people in the organisation feel that it is a fundamentally unreachable goal. Rather than encouraging employees to consider such unique examples, look for more mundane and relatable cases.
Don’t be afraid of using less than exceptional successes, either. In fact, by using examples in which an incremental innovation led to moderate gains, you not only give the organisation an easier target to hit, but also outline something for employees to beat. Success often begets success, so celebrate little wins and wait for bigger ones to emerge.
In order to get innovative new offerings, you need to dedicate resources for development. Too often companies think this is merely a case of money, or believe that with a budget and key performance indicators in place, innovation will emerge.
The truth of the matter is that innovation demands a lot of support, including the time to play around with ideas, test alternatives and develop something functional. Make sure you’re not demanding things without being prepared to give something in return.
A key reason people get anxious when being asked to develop new ideas is a fear of failure. As innovation is by its very nature a high-risk field, failures are inevitable and you need to accept this.
By normalising the prospect of failure – and even celebrating ambitious experiments that were unsuccessful – you can remove the drama and anxiety related to innovation. The benefits to future innovation, coupled with an increase in employee wellbeing, will more than offset any losses.
Keep innovation meaningful
Finally, it is important to ensure innovation remains a meaningful concept. If it becomes an overarching term that is used to describe anything and everything, it will always give rise to stress and confusion. Make sure the company has a stated ambition and illustrate how engaging with this ambition is more than a box-ticking exercise.
Emphasise impact over novelty, uniqueness over following trends, and watch innovation stress dissipate in your organisation. By giving meaning to innovation, you can make even the most stressful work feel less draining.