Problem: We’ve dominated our industry before. We need to do it again. But our innovation initiatives aren’t working, while our competitors are forging ahead. We seem to be “stuck in neutral.” To regain our edge, we need bold innovation. How do I get our innovation programs unstuck?

Jon B. Broome

Business leaders generally know how to get things done, so why can’t they fix innovation? Usually, companies with stagnant innovation are looking in the wrong places for answers. The root of innovation lies within the organization’s people to a much greater extent than is usually appreciated.

Innovation is based in human creativity. People are more creative when they are more strongly intrinsically motivated. However, many organizations experience the paradox that by the time they promote middle managers to play a more significant role in innovation, their intrinsic motivation and meaningfulness is shifting. New awareness in middle age often whispers inhibiting messages like: “I have too many personal and family financial obligations to make big changes now. I’d be a fool to risk my salary.”

Innovative thinking gets stuck when this type of thinking prevails.

The good news is that this same inner voice can help people think out of the box and blend the fulfillment they crave with their emerging financial obligations. I’ve observed this to occur in hundreds of organizations that I’ve worked with. So, what can be done to get innovation unstuck?

The most useful framework I’ve found for understanding innovators originated in the 12th century with Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was an abbess, mystic, language inventor, composer, artist, scientific/medical author and all-around leadership guru at a time when women weren’t allowed to lead anything. She described four “Vias,” or paths that describe a person’s core influencers. Understanding core influencers can help unveil the root of the innovation problem and help your innovation program become unstuck.

- Advertisement -

Via Creativa is the path that explodes forth with great ideas. Untethered to reality, it is ignited by meaningfulness and the love of what we are doing. It is terrified that the Via Positiva will cause it to wither.

Via Positiva describes the way of forward motion and accomplishment. The head is in charge here. Planning your work and working your plan are hallmarks. The Via Positiva takes the actions that lead to success, but taking action risks failure.

Via Negativa is fear, disaster and defeat. While our Via Creativa aspires to great heights, the Via Negativa shows us the depths of the chasm of defeat. Our darkest fears come to life. Our most profound lessons are often found here. The Via Negativa is completely necessary and useful for our growth. Remember that the Via Negativa is afraid, not evil.

Via Transforma is transformational growth in thinking and being that results when the vias are lively. Entwined in the other vias, this via is included in innovation from vision to after-action reporting.

Action Steps:

1. Start with an honest talk with each of your vias, then with your team. Unplug and take some time with each. Go somewhere you feel comfortable and ask yourself, “How vibrant, or useful is this via? What is fueling it? What is restraining it?” Then ask “Why is that?” five times in a row. Asking “why?” offers deeper levels of understanding.

2. Ask visioning questions of each via, “What could this via be like? What could energize it?”

3. Bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Rather than look to outside opportunities or “greener pastures” for the meaning you seek, many managers find renewed meaning inside their work. Then creativity and innovation become renewed and ready to sprint forward.

Often exploring the deeper levels of your vias leads to breakthrough thinking and reconnection with real meaning. Understanding the innovator can unlock the potential of innovation.

Jon B. Broome is an instructor of marketing at UCCS College of Business and instructor of entrepreneurship at Oregon State University. He consults with business on product launch and innovation. Contact: OPED@uccs.edu.