I like to talk about two types of innovation—fast and slow. Both are useful and draw upon some common elements and enablers, but they also differ. While exploring those various differentials is important, it is equally important to see if there are elements that may be more challenging to implement.
When I talk about fast and slow innovation, I am talking about the deliberate and emergent traits. Deliberate innovation occurs when a known problem to be solved or need to be met emerges while slow innovation is the ongoing percolation of new ideas, with more and less effective approaches to each.
To be clear, innovation is not just about new ideas. While innovation does include new ideas, it is also required for the idea to be better than the previous solution—lower costs, fewer resources, and so forth. There should be some metric around which the idea is not just new but an improvement, especially one that is sustained (leads to a new way of doing things that yields ongoing benefits).
Innovation is learning! When we start, whether it is through troubleshooting or design or research, we do not know the answer to the problem, thus we are learning. Now, to be fair, this is not formal learning. Innovation is not designed learning where the expert and instructional designer know the desired outcome and are trying to help others develop a new capability. Yet the engaged individuals are learning, whether through experimentation, content review, or model mapping, or otherwise.
Fast innovation occurs when there is a problem to be remedied, a new product or service needed, or answers to be found. This is typically when we brainstorm. We convene a team, give them a mandate, and create expectations about timeframe and resources. We know that we need an answer, but we don’t yet know what it is.
Slow innovation is different. This is where new ideas emerge that can benefit the business. They are not predictable nor capable of being forced. Instead, under the right conditions, such results flourish. They can emerge from a variety of sources but certain conditions make these outcomes more likely. So, what elements facilitate innovation?
Innovation is also inherently social. The idea of the individual going away and coming back with the answer has been disproven. Stephen Johnson in his survey of innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From and Keith Sawyer in his research covered in Group Genius showed how new ideas are built upon older ones. “Creative friction,” when people rub up against other ideas, is an important component of innovation.
Both forms of innovation benefit from a culture of learning. In their article “Is Yours a Learning Organization?”, Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino identified four critical factors for an environment to be conducive to learning:
1. Openness to New Ideas. People can be resistant to change, reacting with statements such as, “That’s not how we do it here.” Instead, there has to be a willingness to consider every idea to some initial level whether it’s a mental simulation or a full trial.
2. Valuing Diversity. It is not enough just to tolerate diversity; there has to be a deliberate comprehension of the value of diversity and the ways to tap into the opportunities. This includes practices in hiring, skilling, and more.
3. Time for Reflection. While this plays a role more in the slow innovation, it is important for fast innovation as well. Individuals need to have time to generate their own ideas— for instance, before converging.
4. Psychological Safety. If it is not safe to contribute—what I call the Miranda Organization (where anything you say can and will be held against you)—people won’t offer their ideas. This is contrary to the necessary element of social interaction. It has to be OK to experiment, make mistakes, and contribute.
The authors go on to talk about the need for concrete practices that are explicitly developed, including experimentation, measurement, sharing, and more. There are known approaches that should be followed. They also talk about the importance of leadership, making the goals clear and providing resources. I extend their model to suggest that leadership needs to model the core behaviors. Will anyone truly believe it is safe to share if the leader doesn’t?
Slow innovation, in particular, benefits from some broader practices. While the above is true for fast innovation, slow innovation requires some extra factors. And some of these require going beyond typical organizational approaches.
Johnson suggested the importance of the “adjacent possible”—that is, the exposure to related ideas. An ongoing ability to be exposed to new thoughts from related fields helps provide the fuel for serendipitous ideas, which means allowing employees to have access to information resources outside the organization. A number of years ago, many firms blocked the word gameon searches through the firewall. Yet games are a powerful learning environment. In general, education and purpose are better drivers of appropriate search than trying to prevent inappropriate ones.
Another benefit to slow innovation is practices about “learning out loud.” Here everyone is free not only to ask questions and provide answers and pointers but more. The intent is for everyone to make their work and the associated thinking available to each other, making it easier to align with what others are doing and providing opportunities to contribute and improve the outputs.
Another important element is freedom to experiment on things not directly related to job roles. In this case, it is not about specific problems but a focus on trying new approaches. For instance, Google famously allowed 20 percent of an employee’s time to work on ideas that weren’t directly in their job description but could benefit Google.
Time is important in that there must not be pressure on this incubation process or the innovation will become fast. Slow innovation is something that emerges from a conducive environment. It’s about creating the environment where disruptive ideas can emerge. The “Toyota Way,” which developed into Six Sigma had some elements of this, though it was specifically focused on roles.
Some of these elements can be challenging to implement. In a situation where conformity has been valued, diversity can be threatening. Showing your work can be difficult in environments that tend to hide individual efforts and value the collective. Providing time for reflection is difficult in an output-focused environment. The benefits are clear but culture change is hard.
When I was teaching overseas at an institution with learners from many cultures, I took a multi-cultural learning workshop. My goal was to make my teaching more inclusive. The most important lesson I took from this workshop was to use the best principles—for example, making learning about doing, not knowing. This was challenging since many of my students were Asian, and there were (mistaken) beliefs that such students were rote learners. Instead, the cultural norm was to venerate scholarship and honor your teacher by internalizing what they taught. It was not that these students were incapable of learning in new ways but rather that such an approach was unfamiliar. You had to scaffold these into different ways of learning instead of imposing or avoiding them.
These new practices aren’t impossible, but they do require work. As Sutton and Rao tell us in Scaling Up Excellence, change works best when it is instituted in a small way first, then implemented fully, then scaled up. Big institutional changes are harder.
My suggestion is that learning and development (L&D) has two roles to play. The obvious one is to preach and teach the practices of innovation, both fast and slow. The less obvious one is to practice what is being preached, getting the culture of experimentation and sharing first within L&D before evangelizing the benefits to others. That builds credibility and expertise.
Innovation is not mysterious. We have knowledge about what makes it work. What it takes, however, is knowing the elements, putting them into practice, and gradually spreading the practices through the organization. And the promise is that when L&D owns this, it is contributing to the most important success factor in organizations going forward: the ability to learn faster than things are changing. And that, I suggest, is a valuable position for L&D to be in.