In a new report titled “Innovation Matters”, consulting firm PA Consulting surveyed more than 800 senior executives around the world and found that, while over 60% believed innovation was crucial to survival, only 24% believed they had defined the skills and activities needed to be innovative. About 50% did not think their leaders had the ability to be innovative. The report states, “Despite a year full of societal, business and technological changes that offer even greater opportunities for fresh innovation, this year’s research confirms the skills and will to innovate have not yet improved in most organisations.”

Why is innovation such a slippery fish to catch? It’s our fear of failure that’s holding us back. There have been numerous studies showing how effective we are at keeping ourselves from succeeding in creative fields. And this extremely debilitating trait is something we develop as we become adults.

Small children are far less worried about failing or what others will think of their creative efforts; they are more willing to explore. This was famously illustrated by American thought leader Tom Wujec, by way of the marshmallow challenge: Teams were given 18 minutes to build a tower out of spaghetti sticks, masking tape, rope and one marshmallow. After having several teams perform the test, Wujec was surprised to find that kindergarten children were able to build higher and more interesting towers than recent business school graduates.

The graduates had been ‘taught’ to find a single ‘right’ solution—which limited their creativity in execution. They built with the spaghetti sticks and only added the marshmallow at the last moment, which often caused the whole structure to collapse. The kindergartners built prototypes starting with the marshmallow, changing their designs as they went along. The process was less stressful, more collaborative and resulted in better outcomes.

Design thinkers call this the essence of the iterative process: the act of trial and error, learning from your mistakes to find better outcomes.

Design thinking expert and IDEO CEO Tim Brown says adults often apologise for their efforts in creative exercises, as they are driven largely by fear of judgement from their peers. “This fear leads us to be conservative in our thinking.” How we configure our working spaces and interactions encourages this kind of thinking. Planning sessions and strategy meetings take place around tables. People are given turns to present their opinions and are judged according to the merits of the speaker’s argument.

By contrast, stepping into the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking (d-school) at the UCT Graduate School of Business, you’re met by an open space with brightly coloured walls full of Post-it notes and handwritten phrases. The furniture is on wheels and is frequently moved around. Flexibility in the physical space encourages engagement around a focus point, shifting to the needs of the team. Meeting in these spaces promotes active participation and building on one another’s ideas. The transformation in the physical space mirrors what’s going on cognitively in the minds of the participants, as walls are constantly being tested and shifted—a reframing of perspectives and understanding.

Many South African businesses have cottoned on to the benefits of this creative approach to innovation. Rather than merely reacting to external factors, organisations want to actively create a future in which they are relevant.

The concept of a culture where innovation thrives is one where there’s less focus on rules and rigid structures, and more emphasis on flexibility and openness in terms of thinking and suggestions.

Participants on design-thinking courses are encouraged to try and fail, to voice their opinions, and learn how to listen and talk to others. They are guided to becoming more attuned to the user experience and the way customers and clients use products or services. This is quintessential to finding innovative improvements to a process or product.

Innovation may not be easy, but it’s not nearly as hard as people think it is.

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