Communications executives and consultants grapple with a myriad of daily internal and external challenges. From brand journalism to the newest social media platforms, the communications landscape continuously evolves to meet ever-increasing customer demand for transparency, information and value.
It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: The communications team receives a directive to communicate more effectively, to “think outside the box” or to implement bold and innovative solutions. Delivering breakthrough ideas requires bandwidth, financial and creative resources, C-suite champions and, most importantly, a culture that embraces and celebrates innovation.
For many executives and their organizations, implementing breakthrough ideas and bold solutions proves difficult for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, an organization’s aversion to risk and tendency to reward the status quo are its leading impediments to embracing new solutions and optimizing opportunities.
If the C-suite wants it, the communications team is up for it and the marketplace demands it, then why is innovation so difficult to achieve? In his book “Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways to Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying),” David A. Owens, professor for the practice of management and innovation faculty director at Vanderbilt University’s Accelerator-Summer Business Institute, identifies six kinds of barriers to breakthrough ideas: individual, group, organizational, industry, societal and those relating to new technologies.
For communications leaders, the individual, group and organizational constraints present opportunities to guide the organization through the innovation process. While leaders must drive innovation within the organization, it’s important to first identify and address any individual constraints you’re contributing to the environment — such as looking without seeing by limiting the “relevant” data, employing old thought patterns to address current issues and opportunities and ineffectively communicating breakthrough ideas.
Group constraints can take many forms, but are often rooted in fear of criticism and efforts to avoid mistakes and conflicts. Acknowledging that a healthy exchange of diverse ideas enables groups to optimize collaboration in the innovation process, leaders must create an environment that encourages, embraces and rewards thinking differently.
According to Owens, “Groups can be powerful agents of innovation. When members provide multiple perspectives, alternative problem-solving approaches, and production capability together, they can achieve things no individual can achieve on his or her own. To use groups to their highest potential for innovation doesn’t require much except a safe environment, a desire to innovate, an environment for collaboration and a simple process.”
Organizational constraints — including aligning strategy, addressing risk aversion and providing the requisite capital and talent resources — represent another critical factor for innovation. Admittedly, organizational constraints are the most difficult, as innovation requires engaging others to change an organization’s culture.
Breaking the mold
Failure is not an option; it is a requirement for innovative cultures and breakthrough ideas. Google, Apple and Amazon are highly regarded and recognized for their “outside the box” thinking. These companies celebrate successes and failures alike. They encourage their employees to dream, explore and invent new solutions to current problems and to visualize the future. They inspire their teams to break the mold again and again — and in doing so have created innovative cultures that drive their success.
Innovative organizations continuously break the mold to discover new opportunities, develop new products and services and inspire their teams to conceptualize the future and make their visions for it a reality.
While every organization will follow its own path to innovation, the ability to think differently requires breaking from traditional processes, protocols and procedures and a willingness to embrace an appropriate level of internal risk and failure.
Looking beyond the horizon
“The breakthrough innovations come when the tension is greatest and the resources are most limited,” observed Clayton M. Christensen, the Kim B. Clark professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. “That’s when people are actually a lot more open to rethinking the fundamental way they do business.”
Breakthrough ideas and innovation are most often stymied by the absence of well-thought-out communications strategies that address known constraints and enable leaders to champion their adoption. Using their skills to build the case for innovation, communication leaders can help organizations move beyond the processes, protocols and paralysis that stand in its way. Moreover, communications executives have the ability within and outside their organizations to engage constituencies with audience-specific strategies and messages. Simply put, we must sell our ideas to complete the innovation process and enable adoption and implementation.
In his research on innovation, Owens found that most innovators mistakenly believe their work is finished when they have identified a groundbreaking idea that works. But for leaders and influencers to see an idea’s value and advocate its adoption, it must first be communicated in a way that resonates and makes its merits clear. This is a tremendous opportunity for the communications team to direct the narrative and support a cultural shift toward embracing, adopting and celebrating innovation. A concerted effort is required to foster an internal culture that enables employees to explore possibilities and solve problems in new ways, and to celebrate both their successes and failures.
Oprah Winfrey has built a multibillion-dollar enterprise by learning from failure. “Do the one thing you think you cannot do,” she said. “Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it.”
As communications professionals with the experience, talent and ability to engage, educate and empower audiences, we can help our organizations innovate and succeed.
Vanderbilt Professor David A. Owens outlines several key considerations to guide innovation.
- Individual Constraints:Does your audience understand your innovation proposal? Can they see your proposition clearly? What perspective are they likely to take on it? What reasonable questions are they going to ask? How will they talk about your proposal to others?
- Group Constraints:Does your innovation create emotional risks? What risk is there that your innovation can, in any way, make them look foolish? Why should they change the way they currently do things? Does the environment reinforce the message you are sending?
- Organizational Constraints:Does your innovation support their mission and goals? Is it consistent with their strategy? How will it impact their current alignment and priorities? Are they in a position to gain value from your proposition? Do they have the authority to make the adoption decision?
Published as a featured article in The Public Relations Strategist, PRSA’s award-winning quarterly magazine is dedicated to executive-level PR professionals.