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Unpopular Ideas From Across the Ditch, Part 2: Cheat Codes for Innovation (and why they don’t work)

This series is based on lessons learned from leading innovation in the New Zealand Army and New Zealand Defence Force.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A is the famous Konami Code. When entered into various video games it triggers power-ups, such as invulnerability, making the game easier to win. It would seem that this gaming approach has started to enter the conversation around innovation within Defence and the wider public sector. ‘How to make your organisation more innovative in 5 easy steps!’ ‘What’s one thing we can do to make this unit more innovative?’ ‘This is the missing “thing” that will empower innovation in our ranks!’ 

How many times have we heard these statements?

They form part of a concerning trend in the literature currently being produced on innovation. The trend is away from holistic explorations of the problem towards trying to apply ‘cheat codes’ that provide solutions overnight. 

This article explores some of the most popular innovation cheat codes (and why they don’t work). But first, we need to understand why cheat codes are becoming so popular.

The genesis of this trend comes from the significant challenge posed by trying to establish cultures of innovation within the traditional structures of Defence and Government. In Unpopular Ideas, Part 1we saw how the ‘Silicon Valley’ approach is often unsuitable in the Defence environment. 

The result is a situation where the perceived ‘best practice’ hasn’t worked in a unique operating environment, so the unique operating environment is blamed. This will become clearer as we start to explore the most common cheat codes. They intend to circumvent an aspect of Defence that is perceived to impair innovation, rather than holistically adapting innovation to Defence. This is like recommending to remove all the sand in Iraq because it damages the engines of military vehicles. We adapt non-military equipment for the unique military operating environment, why not do the same for non-military methodologies?

The most common innovation cheat code is the ‘Rank Free Zone’ (RFZ). I have lost track of how many conferences, working groups, consultants and ‘idea jams’ have recommended the implementation of RFZs as a method to engender a culture of innovation. They sound great! Empowering everyone to put their ideas forward without being fearful of having those ideas shot down by their superiors, RFZs stop the grumpy Colonels (apologies to any reading this) from saying ‘that’s not how it was done in my day’. They seem like such a good idea how could any genuine proponent of innovation challenge the concept?

Unfortunately, the truth is not quite so bright. The first major problem with RFZs is that one cannot truly ever leave rank at the door. Rank is so ingrained into the culture of Defence (and rightly so) that simply removing a piece of fabric (their rank slide) cannot eliminate the awareness of someone’s rank or prestige. Everyone is aware that once they step back out of the room the rank system is reactivated and there can be consequences from conversations that occurred.

Even if we could mitigate this issue, RFZs still cause a major problem. They remove the requirement for those with rank to be leaders of innovation. Rank should not be viewed as an impairment, but an enabler of innovation. Our leaders need to be focused on using their rank in order to drive the innovative ideas that their teams develop. By making RFZs we remove the imperative for those with rank to utilise it. In saying this, those with rank do need to listen to their subordinates and nurture an innovative environment.

The next cheat code has been gaining popularity recently: ‘just say yes’. This idea is based on the premise that Defence’s current command structures make it too easy for someone in the decision-making chain to say ‘no’ to an idea and shut it down. ‘Just say yes’ comes in several formats, but the idea is that commanders are not allowed to say ‘no’, rather they must find a way to ‘make it happen’. Some proponents state that this should only be used to carry an idea to the experimentation phase, whereupon another assessment will be made. Others go further, stating that the idea should be carried all the way to implementation.

No idea is below consideration nor above scrutiny. Yet it is easy to see what has caused this concept to become so popular. At some point everyone has seen an idea shot down by the chain of command, and the notion that an idea might be ‘bulletproof’ seems desirable.  

This is an interesting thought experiment, but is not a long-term solution to Defence innovation. It may achieve a one-off win, but the goal is consistent delivery of innovations that provide complementary effects in order to deliver a decisively better outcome than previous iterations. 

Firstly, we want to generate numerous ideas and cull them as they move up the chain of command. Secondly, asking for an idea to be above criticism is an act of egotism that ignores an organisations limited resources and constrained priorities. We need to be ruthless in our criticism of ideas, and those that are not going to deliver results need to be altered or closed down as soon as this becomes apparent. Rather than protecting ideas from criticism, we need flexible financial systems that allow resources to be taken out of less promising initiatives and pumped into more successful ones in order to capitalise on results.

The final cheat code, and by far one of the most popular, is the family of ideas that revolve around setting time aside to engage in innovation. These include ‘the 10% rule’, ‘Innovation Friday’, Hack-a-thons and ‘start-up weekends’. The basic premise is that some time is set aside for developing innovative ideas to be presented to commanders for consideration.

The primary problem with this mindset is that it isolates innovation from people’s day-to-day work, and it makes it a ‘nice to have’ rather than an imperative component. Innovation should not be isolated to a Friday afternoon or a fun weekend. It must be an integral part of the decision-making process of all staff. 

When a problem is encountered our people should be using innovative thinking to come up with solutions and then sharing those solutions with their leaders. Ideas should be tried, tested and evaluated. 

If they are suitable, they should be implemented, communicated and celebrated. All of this cannot be achieved in such a short time frame. The real danger these activities pose is that they lull the leadership into the false impression that they are ‘doing something about innovation’; regardless of actual benefits.

I am exceptionally careful in my critique of innovation days or start-up weekends. These kinds of activities do have the potential to add value and encourage innovation. However, in order to deliver real value, they need to be entrenched in a solid evaluation, experimentation and implementation framework that means any ideas developed stand some chance of being implemented. These kinds of activities can enhance an existing culture of innovation, but they cannot be relied upon as a foundation for organisational innovation. They run the risk of leading an organisation down the path to ‘innovation theatre’, rather than ‘high performing innovation’.

This article may paint a grim picture for innovation in Defence and the public sector, but the intent is to brush away some of the preverbal ‘shiny distractions’ so that innovation can focus on the real business of executing positive organisational change. It is only when we do away with innovation’s ‘cheat codes’ and focus instead on the disciplined execution of innovation against a robust framework that takes into account the priorities of the organisation that we’ll truly see results. 

The key to safeguarding success is ensuring we are utilising Defence’s cultural assets, rather than vilifying them. These ‘cheat codes’ seek to circumvent aspects of Defence culture and structures. The only way to entrench a culture of innovation into our organisations is not to fight against our current culture and structures, but rather use and adapt them to suit the paradigm of the 21st Century. 

The way we can adapt these structures will be the focus of the final article in this series: bureaucracy is an enabler of innovation.

About the Author: Tim Jones is the former Deputy Director Defence Excellence (Innovation), NZDF. During his time with the NZDF he established the Defence Innovation Centre of Excellence (DICE). Tim now works for KPMG New Zealand in the Management Consulting Team. Tim is also a Corporal in the New Zealand Army Reserves, serving in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.