It seems that everywhere you go these days, people are talking about the importance of innovation. But how does an organization become innovative? You have to “think outside the box” and implement “best practices,” right? Well, not according to innovation expert Stephen Shapiro. He turns those ideas on their head, and offers new ways to think about innovation. Minnesota Cities talked to Shapiro about innovation, why cities should care about it, and how they can start being more innovative.
Minnesota Cities: “Innovation” can mean different things to different people. What do you mean when you say “innovation”?
Stephen Shapiro : Very simply put, innovation is about staying relevant. We are in a time of unprecedented change. As a result, what may have helped an organization be successful in the past could potentially be the cause of their failure in the future. Cities need to adapt and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of their constituents.
MC: Why is innovation important for today’s cities?
SS: Innovation is used for a variety of reasons within organizations: to reduce costs, improve service levels, increase customer loyalty, etc. But incremental improvements, on their own, are no longer acceptable. Commercial enterprises are raising expectations of their customers every day. There is greater transparency. For example, when you order a pizza with Dominos, their tracker will tell you when your pizza is finished being cooked and when it will be delivered. You’ll even be given the name of the driver. Amazon.com has changed expectations in terms of delivery speeds, offering free two-day shipping to Prime customers, while now offering same day delivery in some locations. As a result, people now expect the same levels of transparency and service from their governments.
MC: What are some of the biggest obstacles that keep organizations from being innovative?
SS: The single biggest enemy is our brain, as it is wired for survival, not innovation. The brain believes that what we’ve done in the past has kept us alive; therefore, it wants us to continue doing what we’ve done previously. We are wired to fear change, as it can seem risky. Similarly, if your past has led you down the path of success, this will further reinforce the desire to do what’s been done before. As a result, we have a limited peripheral vision restricting our ability to generate truly innovative approaches to the challenges we face.
MC: How do you recommend that cities get started in overcoming the obstacles and becoming more innovative?
SS: Innovation primarily involves four steps. The first step is to raise awareness of why innovation is critical for cities and what innovation should target. Everyone should be involved with innovating, but don’t have them innovating everywhere. Not all opportunities are equal.
Next, get the team focused on asking the right questions the right way. This is about framing the challenges so that there is a higher likelihood of developing good solutions (more on this later). The third step is to get individuals talking with others outside their department, organization, or industry (I’ll talk more about this later as well). Finally, allow people the time and freedom to experiment. Experiments are designed to test hypotheses about a potential solution. Disproving a hypothesis is not bad! It is highly desirable because it prevents further investments in potentially bad solutions.
MC: Cities often rely on “best practices” to guide their policies and operations. But you wrote a book called Best Practices Are Stupid. Can you explain that title?
SS: In general, I don’t have an issue with best practices. It is useful to understand what others are doing. However, there are three typical pitfalls that I consistently see within organizations when implementing best practices: While you are implementing someone else’s best practice, they’ve already moved on to the next practice. By the time you get to the implementation phase, your practices may be old!
What works for one organization may not work for you. For example, 3M has a “15 Percent Rule,” which allows all employees to spend 15 percent of their time on work that is not specific to their job/role. It works for them. But other companies that have tried to replicate this practice have failed miserably. 3M’s culture allows this approach to thrive.
We rarely know if a practice was the true source of a compa¬ny’s success. Maybe something completely different was the reason for their success. We never know for sure.
I am not saying that you should not use best practices. Just be prudent when applying them.
MC: You say that companies or managers should not ask for new ideas. What is a better approach to finding solutions?
SS: When asking for ideas, you tend to invite a lot of noise and unnecessary work. Every person in your organization has an opinion, suggestion, or idea about how to improve things in your city. The reality is that most of these ideas won’t be effective in producing the specified objectives of each city. Organizations that spend too much time on idea collection implode from the weight of all the ideas. Instead, ask people to solve your most pressing challenges. For the most effective results, focus on the question, not the solution/idea.
MC: We often hear that to be innovative, you need to “think outside the box.” Do you agree that this is the way to successful innovation?
SS: I have done a number of studies that show that when you ask people to think outside the box, you reduce the quality of your solutions. By asking more abstract questions, you increase the noise, lower the value, and reduce the relevancy of solutions. The issue isn’t that you need to expand the box. Quite often, you are simply looking in the wrong box!
Framing the challenges correctly is a critical key to innovation. Unfortunately we tend to ask questions that are either too broad (e.g., how can we improve education?) or too specific (e.g., how can we give every student an iPad?). For example, bicycle safety advocates have been pushing for mandatory helmet laws for years. This is too specific and implies a particular solution. The real goal is to improve safety. Numerous studies show that safety is greatly improved when there are a large number of cyclists on the road. Ironically, helmet laws have been shown to reduce the number of riders, negating the desired effects. Solving the problem of low compliance with helmet laws is not the same as increasing riders.
MC: You say that expertise is the enemy of innovation. What do you mean?
SS: The more you know about a particular topic, the more difficult it is for you to think about it in a different way. When you are an expert, you will usually develop solutions that are based on your past experiences. This is great for incremental innovation, but it tends to limit the ability to develop breakthrough solutions. Our expertise reduces our peripheral vision.
Innovation requires us to think differently than we have in the past. Therefore the key to breakthrough innovation is to find people who have solved problems in different domains. Airlines were able to speed up plane turnaround by studying Indy 500 pit crews. Hospitals were able to improve emergency room check-in times by observing how hotels handle this process. If you are dealing with a government challenge, don’t just talk to other governments to resolve the problem. Instead talk to others—in different industries—who have solved similar problems to yours.
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