Have you ever seen those great National Geographic photographs of a large number of Pacific salmon swimming upstream to spawn in a swift-running river in Alaska? I remember one where the salmon were making Michael Jordan-like leaps to scale a waterfall – while a large, hungry grizzly bear waited patiently at the top for its salmon dinner.
That image came to mind this past week as I met with a group of middle managers in a multi-billion dollar global corporation that recently committed to improving their corporate capability for innovation.
Seeing viable opportunities
While the managers were intrigued with the tools of creativity and the idea of creating breakthrough new products and services for their customers, it seems that they see no opportunity to do any of that.
They told me that what they work on is completely dictated by their managers, as all product decisions always flow down from the top. And most of those dictates are focused on making minor improvements to the current product line in a ridiculously short timeframe in order to win an upcoming sale.
Fear of the grizzly
So I asked one particularly creative manager in the class if he ever tried going upstream with an innovative idea that could have a bigger impact on the organization. He told me, “I’ve been slapped down so many times with my ideas that I’ve given up trying.”
How sad. Here’s an organization that wants to find breakthrough ideas. They have bright, creative people in the middle of the organization who understand products and understand their customers. But when those salmon try swimming upstream with their creative ideas, the grizzly stops their progress every time.
Provide safe passage
As a leader of innovation, you can’t just say that you want people to be more innovative in their work. Top-down imperatives are not enough. If you don’t create safe, upward pathways for ideas to travel against the traditional flow of your operations, you will never see innovative breakthroughs. The force of the downstream flow is filled with tradition, control, and risk-aversion that can make even the strongest innovation champions weary.
So to realize the potential for innovation in your organization, unleash the creativity of your salmon, challenge them to spawn new breakthroughs, and provide them a safe passage upstream.
And give the grizzlies something else to prey on. Where have you seen the grizzlies stifle innovation in your organization?