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The Energy of Innovation
If you want to innovate, make it easier to do something new.
Every company wants to be innovative. Innovation holds the promise of staying ahead of your competitors and becoming the market leader in your category. However, few companies are really innovative. Why is that?
In chemistry, the Activation Energy is the amount of energy required to get a chemical reaction started. After it’s started the reaction might continue on its own, but without the activation energy it would never get started in the first place. Even if all the pieces are there, they would sit there forever doing nothing.
Teams are the same way when facing difficult decisions. A decision maker needs a certain amount of activation energy to make a decision, or else they will just avoid it. The energy required to make a difficult decision depends not just on the stress of the decision itself, but how the organization reacts to decisions. Will people second guess you? What happens if you’re wrong? The more that someone worries about how others will react to their decisions, the higher the activation energy becomes.
The hardest decisions to make are cutting-edge, innovative ideas. These sound CRAZY at first, and as a result are the most intimidating decisions to make. Do you want to bet your career on a crazy idea? At most companies the answer is no.
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If you want your company to be innovative, you need the activation energy of innovation to be as low as possible. The lower the activation energy, the more crazy ideas you will try and the more likely you are to find true innovations. That means removing all of the administrative, cultural and bureaucratic burden from decisions.
The easier it is to take a risk, the more risks you’ll take.
This is why small startups find innovation easier than large companies. In a small company, the activation energy of new ideas is zero. Everything is a new idea at a small startup! There are only a few people at the company, so you don’t worry about what they think! As a result, startups try many crazy ideas and some work out to be real innovations.
But, you can’t be a small startup company forever. Nor would you want to be! Growth is the reward for success.
As the company grows, the activation energy rises. Employees might start to worry about how their decisions are seen by their team, and focus on small, easy wins. It gets easier to hide behind existing ideas instead of trying something new. As a result, employees will avoid hard decisions in favor of other work (see Don’t Confuse Motion with Progress).
Eventually, the company might become big enough that it’s almost impossible to do anything new. I started my career at Verizon, a leading telecom in the US, and at the time it employed ~150k employees. It was nearly impossible to launch anything new because the bureaucracy was so thick and the internal politics so toxic. In many ways, the company was designed to prevent employees from trying anything new.
This might sound bad, but you can understand how it happens. A company the size of Verizon employs a ton of people, and it cannot risk disruption of its extremely lucrative business model. As a result, the company is set up to protect itself from its employees and anything they might do to mess things up. Having an impossibly high activation energy for innovation is a feature, not a bug, here.
Very few companies have business models that are so profitable and defensible as Verizon, so innovation is a necessity. If you don’t innovate, some other company will and you’ll be left behind.
So, how do you lower the activation energy of innovation? Here are a few ways:
Reward new ideas. Whenever someone tries a really innovative idea, celebrate it! Don’t worry about whether the idea worked or not, the important thing is that the company sees innovation as a goal itself. If you only celebrate successful ideas, you will inadvertently increase the activation energy as everyone will only try things if they know they will succeed.
Make time for innovation. You already have goals and a huge amount of work with the existing business, when do you have time to try something new? You have to make time for your team to try new ideas. Holding a hackathon once a year isn’t enough, you need to make it part of your ongoing work process. Make sure there is time and room in your plans for innovation every day, week and month.
Remove company politics. Company politics greatly increase the activation energy of innovation because they mean everyone is looking out for themselves. Innovation only works if people are willing to fail, and they are only willing to fail if the risk is worth the reward. You want a team that supports each other in failure, instead of using it to undermine each other. How do you get rid of company politics? Complete transparency, aligned incentives and a zero-tolerance policy of political actors.
Innovation is hard to do, and requires a lot of commitment from you as a leader. You have to constantly nurture innovative thinking and make room for it to grow, to ensure the activation energy stays as low as possible.
Sometimes, the effort required to keep the activation energy of innovation low seems not worth it. Innovation is hit and miss, and you might not have much to show for it after a while. However, when it does hit, the innovations that it produces will define the success of your company for years.
When it does, your competitors will wish their activation energy was lower.
For more on innovation see these posts: