Innovation fatigue

Do you suffer from innovation fatigue?

While attending the ISPIM Asia-Pacific Innovation Forum 2014 in Singapore a few weeks ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion with the intriguing title: “Are executives suffering from innovation fatigue? What can be done to enhance the effectiveness of innovation workshops?”

“Innovation fatigue? We’re in the innovation economy. And how can one ever get tired about innovation?”, were my initial thoughts to this topic. After all, carefully planned and well-run innovation events do elicit feelings of joy, eager anticipation and excitement in delegates who can partake in it, don’t they? Well, after actively contributing to the roundtable discussion, and linking it back to my former experiences as a competitive runner, I got a better grasp of the underlying causes of innovation fatigue, and some ideas for potential cures of the problem.

What is innovation fatigue?

We may define innovation fatigue as a lessening in one’s response to and enthusiasm for innovation, typically as a result of overexposure to innovation initiatives. your organization has probably been overkilling your staff’s enthusiasm for innovation Do your managers and employees approach a new innovation initiative with a sense of lethargy or boredom? Or, even worse, dread? If so, you know that as a senior executive, innovation manager or human resources manager that something has gone wrong with your good intention to promote innovation in your company. But what?

What causes innovation fatigue?

“Everything is connected with everything else,” noted Leonardo da Vinci. So why don’t we connect the issue of innovation fatigue to the world of competitive running?

If you’re a runner who’s competing in too many races over a season, you sooner or later lose your winning edge: You physically and mentally tire out as you don’t have enough time to recuperate; you are more likely to pick up an injury or to make tactical mistakes during a race. In short: Competing in too many races over a season results in excessive fatigue, a dip in race performances, and eventually injuries or even burnout.

In the same way, innovation fatigue may be spurred by running too many innovation initiatives over a given time period. The problem gets amplified if the innovation events don’t deliver the hoped for results due to a lack of preparation, poor scheduling, involving the wrong participants, and over-demanding performance expectations. Let’s briefly look at each of these factors:

  • Insufficient preparation: A runner first trains before competing in a challenging race. Likewise, employees who have already undergone training in how to think more systematically and creatively tend to perform better in a real-life innovation project workshop.
  • Wrong participants: Innovation fatigue may result by inviting the wrong delegates to an innovation event (e.g., colleagues who are more efficiency-focused rather than innovation-focused) or —even worse— by hiring amateur innovation facilitators.
  • Timing: Both in innovation and running, fatigue sets in if you schedule too many events in too short of a time.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Do you expect a novice runner to win her first competitive race? Likewise, don’t send delegates into their first ever innovation training and expect them to come up with Earth-shaking ideas that solve the most pressing problems of your business.

Who is to blame for the causes of innovation fatigue?

Let’s face it: dilettante “innovation experts” who lack expertise and experience are one cause of innovation fatigue. Becoming an international expert in innovation or any other domain requires you to roughly invest 10,000 hours of dedicated and disciplined work in the field. That’s eight years of working for five hours each workday of the year in a highly focused, concentrated way on issues related to your field of specialization. Moreover, persistently putting in that much work hours typically requires you to be deeply passionate about your chosen domain and to possess a natural talent for it.

With the advent of the innovation economy, numerous marketers, consultants and trainers have quickly jumped on the innovation bandwagon and relabeled themselves as “innovation experts” without having put in the necessary work hours to truly become an expert in the field — and without having the natural talent, desire, discipline and patience to gradually move up level by level from novice, apprentice, practitioner, master to eventually become a genuine innovation expert.

But let’s be honest: corporate decision makers account for innovation fatigue, too. This is because they fail to separate the wheat from the chaff by hiring such greenhorn innovation experts; or because they fall for promises of fast and sizeable improvements in return on investment (ROI) or a 100% success guarantee in an innovation project (which no true innovation experts would dare to suggest, knowing that there is always a small degree of success uncertainty involved even when using a well-structured, systematic innovation method and potent creativity tools); or because they want get innovation experts on the cheap. Well, as David Ogilvy said: “Pay peanuts, get monkeys.” Finally, corporate decision makers tend to overload innovations workshops because they want to get out too much from one event.

How to cure innovation fatigue?

Here are five tips to prevent of innovation fatigue before it affects your organization:

  1. Carefully plan your innovation initiatives for the year. Spread your initiatives or events out, thereby avoiding scheduling conflicts with other organizational priorities (e.g., budgeting). Don’t overload.
  2. Focus on one target result at a time. In planning your innovation workshops, notice the important difference between an innovation training and project. Training centers on learning and human capital development. In contrast, an innovation project focuses on the direct production of meaningful ideas and tangible results; innovation project workshops are more complex and resource intensive and typically command a premium compared to an innovation training course. Resist the temptation to mix innovation training with projects, as you’re likely to neither get good learning nor really good ideas for your investment. It’s like a competitive runner aiming to race for both record and title in a championship race — you’re likely to end up losing both.
  3. First train, then do. Start training your employees in the know-how of systematic innovation, and thereafter let them apply the learned contents in a real life project.
  4. Hire professional innovation experts. Genuine innovation experts have put in the necessary hours to hone both their domain expertise and experience, and also have a natural affinity for creativity and innovation. Here note that most genuine innovation experts worked hard for years to develop their own original innovation methods, and need to amortize these development costs. Please resist the temptation to press them for discounts, and pay them the professional fees they ask for and deserve.
  5. Track your progress, but don’t obsess over short time results. Innovation takes time and doesn’t show results overnight. While a sales training or focused sales initiatives may translate into measurable results in the short run (say a quarter’s time), many innovation initiatives bear their fruits only in the medium run (say, 1-3 years). More often than not, it takes months or even years of persistent work before a new product is shipped or a new service is launched. So when you track results, remember that innovation is not a sprint, but a a middle- or long-distance race.

Have you already planned your innovation initiatives for the new year? Contact us to find out how we may help you master your  innovation challenges in 2015 with our our innovation training and project solutions that we deliver using our proprietary four innovation methods (and here Thinkergy’s award-winning innovation process method X-IDEA in particular).

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2015. 
This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on January 8 2015.