Authored by James Mitchell, Vice President, Client Delivery

Imagine there was a device that could take your trash out for you on a daily basis. It’s a hidden conveyer belt that traverses under or around your house through a series of trenches to remove your non-recyclables.

Sounds clever right? Imagine this thing existed, and you could afford it. In fact, the IRS would give you a tax break for installing it. The incentives are all there. Less taxes, less trash hauling… straightforward stuff.

Now imagine the that the county sends you a letter stating that, yes, they’re aware of this technology, and yes, the Federal tax incentive exists, but for the sake of their employees’ job security and their self-imposed performance metrics, they would not be participating in the program, thus killing your dreams of installing the Insta-Trash 3000. Other counties follow suit rendering the technology useless to the market.

If I asked you to find the center of innovation in this scenario most of you would obviously and correctly point to the device manufacturer. But I’d say that the tax incentive is also innovative. And the user who is willing to adopt this new device is innovative in their willingness to be an early adopter of a non-conventional technology.

Innovation is killed, however, by the county officials who were more interested in preserving their way of life for reasons to them that were fundamentally more valuable than disruption. And before you roll your eyes and mutter, “Classic government bureaucracy,” I would argue this is less about government and more about a basic human trait to resist change. We all do it. And sometimes that human instinct to preserve oneself through a routine that gives us safety and certainty ends up more dominant in our work life than we’d care to admit. Before we know it, we’re just mindlessly walking the proverbial trash down to the curb day in and day out when we could have installed the Insta-Trash 3000 and simplified our existence, all because someone somewhere didn’t want to rock the boat.

Society has convinced itself that “innovation” must lead to big changes, like space exploration, or the elimination of a disease like polio. Sure. But we can also introduce innovative practices incrementally, lessening disruptive outcomes while driving improved efficiencies. In our scenario the county was concerned about job loss and a significant change to its existing institution. Those resulting changes may have led to retraining of the workforce, new expansion of government services, and increased tax revenue. But the fact is we miss out on opportunity when we balk at change.

It turns out that our primordial instinct that kept us with our tribe on a safe path to avoid being eaten by lions is the same one that tells us to use the RED folder for personnel actions and the BLUE ones for travel requests. The stakes are very different in each scenario, but the human brain still assigns the same weight to both outcomes.

Breaking away from that instinct to introduce new ways of doing things is the crux of innovation. Bringing people together along a path resulting from disruption is brave because you’re asking people to trust that changing processes and outcomes doesn’t always mean changing our very existence.

We see this every day with our clients. There’s a champion who wants to introduce new processes. There’s an authority figure they must convince. And there’s a team of people waiting and watching to see what happens. In every case, we want to bring those people together as a team, process outcomes collectively, quickly discard anything that won’t work for the organization, and implement meaningful solutions together using agile practices.

More importantly, we should start by defining innovation for the organization by interviewing each member of the team. We treat every issue or idea like a product we can manage and give people specific roles to execute on. We incorporate circumstance but not at the expense of creativity. And in the end, we will institute change together at a pace that fits the organization’s appetite for transformation.

Innovation doesn’t have to stop at the water’s edge of practicality. The Insta-Trash 3000 was a great idea that didn’t get the buy-in it needed to succeed. Not every innovative idea will see the light of day. That doesn’t mean it didn’t change the way people thought about the problem as it was being developed and marketed. If the only thing we get out of innovation is changing how we think about the things we spend a lot of time doing, but hardly any time reflecting on how and why we do them, then there’s still value there. Innovation as process only works if all the right folks are involved from the start, and your team accepts the potential impacts before embarking on execution.

We don’t always have to go to the moon, and the threat of lions has thankfully decreased precipitously throughout the course of human evolution. Innovation doesn’t always have to be that complex or heavy.

Sometimes there’s just a better way to take out the trash.