According to conventional wisdom, getting people to "think outside the box" is a great way to spark innovation. Then again, there's probably no more glaring an oxymoron that "innovative conventional wisdom," so maybe getting people to think outside the box isn't such a great idea after all.
That's one piece of my takeaway from a recent conversation I had with Stephen Shapiro, a widely acknowledged expert on innovation and author of the book, "Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition." I began the conversation by asking Shapiro if that was just a catchy title for the book, or if he really believes that best practices are stupid. His response:
Well, I really do believe that best practices, when used incorrectly, are stupid. First, anyone who tries to replicate what someone else is doing as a strategic differentiator means they're playing catch-up. The second point is that what works for one company as a best practice may not work for another company because of the culture, the people, the hiring practices. So we need to be very critical about it.
I asked Shapiro what he sees as the single biggest impediment to innovation in corporate America, and he said there are really a couple of things:
One in particular is that we have, inside corporations, become overly-enamored with everybody's opinions. This is causing an avalanche of useless ideas. So if I were to choose one thing, I would say that's a major problem. Part of it is that we've swung the pendulum from not wanting people's ideas to wanting everything, and there really needs to be a good middle ground. The other thing is clearly in large corporations, the heavy focus on quarterly earnings makes it harder to invest in long-term innovation.
I asked Shapiro if he's finding in the lousy economy that employees tend to keep their heads down and avoid risk in order to keep their jobs, and whether this is stifling innovation. He said that in this economy people are definitely scared, so they're going to be more risk-averse:
I think in some respects this creates an opportunity, though, for the people who do want to raise their heads up and do some cool things and take the risk. I think there's definitely truth to what you're saying, that if you stick your head up at this point, it's very possible to get it chopped off. So lying low seems to be the normal mode of operation. Personally, I think that's a mistake for anybody who wants to manage their career, rather than just managing their job.
I also wanted to get his thoughts on how the United States is doing innovation-wise compared to the rest of the world, and where he sees that trend heading. He said this country is still leading the charge when it comes to innovation:
Part of it is cultural-I think that as a culture, we are more attuned to risk-taking than other countries might be. So what we are able to do is rally the troops around things that are a little more novel. The challenge we have is that while we're great at innovation and commercialization, the actual production is certainly being moved elsewhere. Also the reality is that with things like crowdsourcing, the barriers to innovating in other countries are dropping, as is the cost.
Here are some of Shapiro's unconventional tips for making your organization more innovative.