The elusiveness of innovation

The apparent inability of European countries to catch up or win the innovation race with the United States is puzzling. The problem persists in spite of substantial funding efforts and numerous initiatives on the part of the EU. I believe one of the main causes is not lack of material support but insufficient emphasis on developing appropriate organizational cultures, particularly soft skills. This is indeed ironic, since changing organizational cultures requires only modification of mental attitudes, not costly investments in infrastructure etc. Traditional and non-innovative modes of thinking dominate not only in universities and governmental institutions, but also in R&D organizations, think tanks and foundations.

Even  start-ups created by academically-trained entrepreneurs, often develop organizational customs and informal behaviors that, unwittingly, resemble those dominating in more traditional organizations. The typical features are: a hierarchical pecking order, hierarchy based on age and title rather than accomplishments, and cross-disciplinary or even cross-institutional links greeted with suspicion. This is a recipe for stagnation, not innovation.

In contrast, even those universities (such as Harvard University) that place great emphasis on cultivating traditions and customs, have established new policies and organizational cultures that ensure energetic and vigorous commitment to pushing the innovation frontier. Mentioning here the innovation-oriented and youthful entrepreneurial cultures of Silicon Valley or the Kendall Square area in Boston would be stating the obvious.

I argue that a workplace  conducive to innovation should possess certain characteristics:

  • stress-free and peer-pressure-free, because employees are easily intimidated and embarrassed, when their contributions are expected to be non-standard or novel
  • hierarchy-free, because employees perform better and their spontaneity is improved when formal relations among them are minimized rather than emphasized
  • routine-free, suspenseful and fun, because people are easily bored, enjoy being spontaneous and tend to be more creative when they are playful
  • stimulating by providing immediate feedback and hints, because people are impatient and adding a sense of urgency has a beneficial effect on the creative process
  • orderly, because providing easy access to fact checking facilitates idea evaluation by removing ambiguities or imprecision. “Creative chaos” is beneficial only if it is under control
  • interdisciplinary, because providing inspiration from other disciplines may generate the beneficial effect of “consilience”. Innovative managers should look for inspiration in areas other than their area of technical expertise, but always staying in touch with the needs of the industry. Radically new ideas and novel solutions to old problem reside in the zone of influence of many disparate disciplines.

How then to build an environment conducive to innovation? First, training for soft skills, i.e. of training non-autocratic management styles and creative/heuristic methods. I believe it is possible to train managers to be “softer” and to train employees to be more creative.


Michal Jasienski, writing from the Center for Innovatics, Nowy Sacz Business School – National-Louis University, Poland

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