Start Your Innovation Fire

I recently moved to Baltimore after 20+ years in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I’m experiencing a novel phenomenon: winter. (As SF residents know, winter there occurs in the summer, but we’ll leave that aside for now). Of the many things I’ve learned about prepping for real winter, the trickiest to get consistently right has been how to make a fire in our cast iron wood-burning stove. The other day I was struggling with getting one going, cursing and smothered in soot, and I thought about the parallels with lighting the fire of innovation in a company or organization. I love me a good metaphor as much as I love a good fire, so bundle up and let’s see how far we can torture this one.

Warm and toasty, just like innovation!

Prepare the environment

Fire: Before you can even think about building a fire, you have to ensure the environment is safe and will produce results. Make sure your stove is in good functioning shape, and the chimney is clear of blockages that could stifle air flow or cause smoke to get pushed back into the room.

Innovation: Just like a fire, innovation thrives best in the right environment. This doesn’t have to be perfect out the gate, but its important to set the right tone and mindset for exploring unorthodox ideas, risk-taking, failure (if accompanied by learning), collaborating across disciplines and silos, and expectations about how soon to see successes. Also, are blockages cleared out of the way that will slow things down or create push-back? These could be legacy processes or decision matrices, sacred cows, misaligned expectations….whatever they are, minimize them.

Starting isn’t the same as sustaining

“Can’t start a fire without a spark” — Dancing in the Dark, Bruce Springsteen

Fire: Successfully starting a fire requires lighting small, easily flammable things first, and using those to create a chain reaction to light up larger logs. It’s easy to create a spectacular flame that burns out quickly and doesn’t catch on or generate usable heat. A cast iron stove works best when you get sustained heat that gradually warms up the dense metal, so it can radiate for a long time.

Innovation: A common mistake is to launch into a “Big I” innovation effort (a “log”) without working up from smaller “kindling” efforts. These small efforts may not be as glamorous, but they are much easier to get started, and faster to complete and show success (or quicker to fail but then learn from). And if those small efforts aren’t able to create a chain reaction into other initiatives, they’ll remain little more than vanity projects. Might be good for a story or two, but that pattern isn’t going to have true organizational impact, the “innovation spark” that fires up others to do the same. Like a cast iron stove, organizations take a while to get hot from a cold start, and the goal is to create a self-sustaining burn that will last for years, not a quarter or two. The most reliable way to do this is to build it up in stages. And don’t ramp up too quickly: just like a fire, if you load up with too much large stuff too quickly, the whole system will cool off and die.

Spread the heat around

Fire: A valuable accessory is a contraption that sits on top of the stove, and using a seemingly magical process that turns heat into electricity, spins a fan silently at high speed. This moves heat from the vicinity of the stove into other rooms.

Innovation: Too often, innovation efforts stay constrained to a small part of an organization. This is why I’m not usually a fan of skunk works-type setups — by nature they don’t collaborate well with the larger entity. To maximize the benefits, you need to spread the heat around: transport the successful processes, tools, mix of people and roles, and the productive attitudes and insights into other high-need parts of the organization.

Always adjusting

Fire: There are good practices for setting up a fire to get it going, but each time you do it is different depending on the type and dryness of the wood, the shape of the logs, etc. You can’t take anything for granted, and must check the fire’s progress and nurture it periodically, carefully choosing which new logs or kindling to add to maintain or revive it.

Innovation: There’s no such thing as cookie-cutter innovation. Every effort is going to be a bit different, and while you can apply patterns and heuristics learned from before, chances are they’ll need tweaks. Innovation gets easier over time, but it’s never effortless. It’s easy to let progress stagnate, and you have to constantly feed ongoing innovation efforts with new perspectives and fresh problems to solve, or you risk flaming out.

Survival or theater?

Fire: Our stove is a supplement to a conventional thermostat-controlled heating system. If a fire is being stubborn, I may get frustrated, but it won’t be life-threatening in the dead of winter. I’ll just push a button and turn up the heat a notch. But for plenty of people in our semi-rural area, wood burning stoves aren’t just for show and ambience, they’re a true necessity. So it’s vital they get good at building fires.

Innovation: Doing innovation, especially of the breakthrough kind, is really hard, and you’re not going to get it 100% right at first. It takes sticktoit-ness to improve. If you see innovation as a fun luxury — innovation theater — rather than an existential necessity, you’re probably going to give up on it pretty quickly. If you’re an organizational leader trying to drive innovation progress, you need to make the survival imperative crystal clear in order to create the necessary persistence at learning new ways of doing things. Otherwise people will just return to their easy, familiar, push-button systems.

Want to get your innovation fire started?

I’m still new at learning how to make good fires, but I have a lot of experience at helping companies with their innovation efforts. After 20+ years in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, including 10 years at global innovation and design firm frog design, I’m striking out on my own with consulting. Find out how I can help get the innovation fire started (or burning stronger) at your organization with product and experience strategy, customer journey mapping, and workshops, at www.richardsona.com

Founder of The Enigma Bureau / Innovation & UX strategy consulting / workshop leader / frog design alum / HBR contributor / www.enigmabureau.com