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  • Tim Westall

Lazy innovation

Updated: Mar 22

Think about what it’s like when you’re at your happiest. It might be on the beach with a cocktail on holiday after escaping the office for a week. It might be in front of the fire with a brandy after a hard day’s work. It might be at the top of a mountain after a tough climb. Or it might be a bit of chilling after the ardours of Netflix.

There are certain similarities to these happy moments. All represent a ‘least energy state’ arrived at after a degree of effort and focus. We’ll expend energy if we have to, but we love to be lazy.

Recent research from the University of British Columbia suggests our brains may be innately attracted to sedentary behaviour. Electroencephalograms showed that test subjects had to summon extra brain resources when trying to avoid physical inactivity. From an evolutionary point of view, our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent the best part of 200,000 years working no more than 4-5 hours a day. It was more or less sufficient to stay well-fed. The first farmers worked harder, were much more productive and considerably more innovative. They discovered the benefits of specialisation, systemisation and division of labour, creating the foundation for civilisation as we know it today.

Laziness is not confined to individuals. Organisations do it too. The economist John Hicks famously observed that ‘the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life’, where monopolists are prepared to forgo profit maximisation (that might attract the unwelcome attention of competitors or regulators) in exchange for an acceptable return, but more importantly for a peaceful existence without disruption.

In more recent history, the Prussian Field Marshal Moltke categorised his officers according to their intelligence (clever or not-so-clever) and their level of industry (lazy or industrious). His assertion was that the best strategists and innovators were the clever, lazy ones.

It’s interesting how the word ‘lazy’ gained a pejorative sense when translated from the original German. The actual sense of the original defined ‘lazy’ as ‘calm and relaxed’, ‘unwilling to waste energy’ and ‘looking for the most efficient and elegant solution’. Contrast that with the hyperactive, micro-managing thrasher that one often finds in innovation leadership roles.

Modern society colludes with our slothful predisposition. Why walk when you can drive your car or order an uber? Why bother to learn to read a map when you can just follow your smartphone’s instructions? Why learn to cook or invest in an oven when you can order a takeaway or go out to eat? Why even learn to write when Siri can just listen to your order?

We are conditioned to expect life to become less effortful, more instantly gratifying and always available on-demand. But then consider the societal direction of travel with the reality of your average modern work environment. We are constantly exhorted to embrace disruption, innovation, new technology and change. We are told that we live in an environment of unprecedented volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We must be agile, nimble, faster to market, more responsive to change. We must innovate or die. It all sounds like such hard work that to many, metaphorically ‘dying’ is preferable, particularly if accompanied by a chunky severance package and some free careers advice.

So is it any surprise that it’s so difficult to make innovation and change happen? How many times have you seen a transformation initiative being launched where we are encouraged to ‘dare to be different’, to ‘be the change’ or to ‘live the new values’? Look around the room to see a mix of folded arms, quizzical eyebrows and blank faces. Look beyond the excitable consultants on stage for any sign amongst the accountable leadership team of lack of belief or commitment. If there’s any hint of eye-rolling, you’ll know they don’t really mean it.

Many would have it that this sort of resistance to change is irrational. But bearing in mind our evolutionary history and contemporary conditioning, it’s a perfectly understandable natural human response. Why trade an acceptably comfortable current state for the uncertain promise of a different future state and the guarantee of considerable effort and disruption in getting there?

How to be smart and lazy

Design the team: think a bit more like Field Marshal Moltke and embrace the talents of those in the ‘smart and lazy’ quadrant – who are driven to make life easier and are smart enough to be able to conceive of (disruptive) new solutions. Complement them with ‘not quite so smart but very industrious’ types who are disposed to be curious, energetic and adaptable – and are willing to follow the lead of the disrupters.

A global beverage player had a habit of promoting its best managers to become innovative disrupters. However, their experience and preferences led them to behave like conservative non-disrupters and innovation stalled. The introduction of constructive disrupters and strong governance helped to achieve breakthrough.

Create the conditions: we are creatures of our environment and it’s tough to sustain a different way of working if you’re stuck in the boardroom where ‘business as usual’ is conducted. You’re constantly wasting effort in going against the grain of your surroundings, looking for workarounds and make-do’s. Create a separate ‘petri dish’ where it’s easier for genuinely radical ideas (and people) to flourish.

A global financial services player built a separate ‘innovation lab’ in Singapore to experiment with new technologies, free from the constraints of legacy IT in head office. This led to exciting new concepts that were delivered through partner collaboration rather than in-house capability.

Lead the change: quality of leadership is the single most important factor in determining the success of change initiatives. Leadership has to make a visible and believable case as to why change is necessary and why it is beneficial (to the organisation and to the individual). The smart leader will amplify impact through a committed ‘band of brothers’ (and sisters!) – who are each able to advocate and defend change, listening to the valid concerns that are often raised.

An international industrial group were successful the second time around in delivering an innovation because their CEO spent 75% of his time listening to people around the organisation and socialising the benefits of the innovation face-to-face, day in and day out.

Own the change: while consultants can be helpful in designing and facilitating change and innovation processes, you and your team must own it. Organisations that have change ‘done to them’ by external consultants are far less likely to build the capability and resilience to sustain it for themselves. The energy and resource that it takes to engage with and manage consultants is often better deployed on hiring, training and mobilising your own people.

A global food and drinks player disposed of the ‘big consulting’ partner upon whom they had built an unhealthy dependency, replacing them with a network of experts, part of whose role was to develop in-house capability. This saved millions and also upgraded organisation performance.

Say why: the ‘why’ behind change has to matter. Much has been written about the growing importance of alignment between the purpose of the organisation (why it exists) and the intrinsic motivation of the individual. A clearly stated purpose will act as a shortcut for people – do I believe in what this place is trying to do? Will I feel good about what I’m doing here? Save time and effort for everybody by making your organisational purpose and values explicit and ‘pointy’, being very clear about what you are ‘for’ as well as what you are ‘against’.

A regional healthcare provider was able to halve staff attrition through a time of change and transformation by actively ‘recruiting for purpose and values’, with two thirds of applicants being screened out for lack of alignment (versus the previous process of all applicants being interviewed).

Make it personal: alignment with the ‘why’ is necessary but rarely sufficient. People want to know what’s in it for them. This is less about money and more about reward and satisfaction. And there will be a different point of personal connection and benefit for each individual, which you need to help them discover. Be smart and invest in the engagement process for this to happen, rather than the effortful force-feed of a top-down approach.

A global automotive player drove technological innovation through a ‘campaign’- based approach, listening to individuals at every level and co-designing the implementation plan. While this took longer than a conventional ‘cascade’ approach, it led to something more authentic and durable.

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