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When I was about 6 years old, I was exploring local woods with my older sister (she was 3 years older than me then… amazingly she still is … I always thought I’d eventually catch up…). We were about a 10-minute walk from our home, unsupervised. Well, it was the early 1980s, different times and freedoms. It had been raining for days and was deliciously mucky so we were dressed in our wellington boots and heavy woollen duffel jackets, out on our own, exploring.

I remember going near the edge of a marsh as the mud was really squelchy. What 6-year-old doesn’t like stomping around in mud? Every step I took sucked me in deeper and what had begun as a game suddenly got a bit scary. I couldn’t move and, in a panic, I tried to extract myself, left my boots behind in the mud, and slid silently over the edge and into the murky marsh. Only that I grabbed the grass verge on my way down did my little face stay above the water and sludge.

Walking Through Sludge

Up to my neck, my 9-year-old sister grabbed my hands that were gripping to that grass for dear life. She pulled me out bit by bit. How, I have no idea, as I must have weighed about 50kg with the wet duffel coat. I trudged home, wet, despondent, and bootless. It was only many years later I realised how lucky I had been and that my sister’s quick thinking had potentially saved her little brothers life.  I still remember that feeling of being sucked under, the hold that mud had on my little feet and body. Mud and sludge that is sticky and slow to move through, powerful in its force to stop you moving forward and can even weigh you down.

I think many of us personally, and certainly many leaders and companies, are finding their innovation engine a little sluggish right now. We seem to be walking through the mud, far slower than we’d like. Creativity is sluggish, sub-par. Only the basics are getting done, our teams firing on only 2 or 3 of their 4 cylinders. There lacks spark, drive, passion and momentum in places. The routines have become just like that mud that held little Ken from moving.

Sing the Blues

Every 3rd Monday of January is known as Blue Monday. We have just passed it. By this time our well-intended New Year’s Resolutions have already fallen by the wayside, the house looks bare without the decorations, the overstretched December credit card bill is due for payment, summer vacations seem very far away and the mornings are still dark. All in all, one of the most depressing days of the year, apparently.

A man is sad and depressed in his sofa on blue Monday

In 2022, with many still working from home, Blue Monday takes on another aspect. Are we facing into another year of MS Teams and personal disconnect? Another year of remote managing and uncertainty? The initial resilience many showed, in both their own work and their leadership, has waned significantly 20+ months later. There are productivity issues, leadership challenges, and most importantly, innovation is under significant threat due to routine behaviours.

Welcome to the Innovation Sludge

What is Innovation?

There are countless definitions of creativity and innovation, with the corporate world often using the two words interchangeably. At its simplest, Creativity is the generation of the new and novel idea and Innovation is the implementation of these ideas into product or process.

Creativity is the use of imagination to create, to birth ‘something from the nothing’ but an idea is just that, an idea, a concept. Innovation is the application of a new idea in method, process or product. Even the better application of technology to an existing problem is ‘innovative’.

But what should be very clear is that either a new idea or a new approach both require new thinking. It requires us to create something that did not exist before. And while Incremental Innovation can also be a viable strategy (small changes over time), significant success is usually rewarded to those that adopt Disruptive or Radical Innovation approaches, the big idea, the bold step.

Fuel your Innovation Engine

So, we can probably all agree that creativity leads to innovation. Having new ideas is important, even if those new ideas are simply how to implement available resources (say digital convenience) against existing business issues (say optimising your Customer or Employee Experience). New thinking and new ideas are the fuel for the innovation engine.

When you fail to come up with new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives you begin to plateau as a brand and business. That wonderful Lauren Bacall quote is very true – Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world. We live in a time where you are fading in relevance if you are not moving forward.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well based on the conversations and questions I am being asked by leaders and C-level executives globally, the Innovation engine seems to be sputtering. Teams seem less productive than they were, projects are meandering, and there simply seems to be less imagination, creativity and spark in thinking.

Routine is the enemy of creativity. Doing the same thing, exposed to the same people, repeating the same process, surrounded by the same stimulus. This is not how to catalyse creativity. Sitting in the same place with the same view doing the same thing every day is a sure way to suppress any new thoughts or ideas. And that is just what many people have been doing, on and off, for the past 20+ months.

Encourage the New

Unless you pour new stimulus in the top of your creativity funnel, where exactly do you think the new ideas are going to come from? Pre pandemic you travelled, you exposed yourself to new people and places. You went to conferences and meetings, had random encounters with products and brands, places and people. You overheard conversations on the subway, you chose random breakout sessions at networking events, you came up with a new collaboration for your business from a random meeting with a fellow traveller in the business lounge.

Stimulus comes from anywhere, from everywhere and sometimes from random places. The new, the fresh, the different. It is what exercises the muscle of creativity and without it, without the new inputs, our creativity starts to atrophy, to shrink, to waste away.

So, why are we surprised that our innovation is slowing? Trapped in routines, denied exposure to the ‘new’ we are wading through the Innovation sludge. We are trying but our boots are heavy.

Blue Monday was last week and things are depressing enough – so to the solution. How do you catalyse creativity and therefore fuel that innovation engine? Well, you exercise the muscle. Unless you have formed a ‘creativity habit’, how can you expect just to turn it on when needed. But just as joining the gym doesn’t give you the six-pack, you have to put in the effort and hours, and it starts with you as an individual.

In 2014, to celebrate my 40th year, I completed a personal experiment. On January 1st I decided I would do something new every day, something I had never done before, for 365 days in a row. At midnight every night I had to write in my journal what I had done. It sounds easy but you would be surprised how many things you have already tried in 40 years.

Some of the things I did were indeed the big things – the naked bungee jump, the sky dive, the half-marathon. But most were small ones, new skills, new places I visited. I became open to any suggestion to go anywhere, try anything. I became a sponge for new experiences or foods, new classes and workshops. If by midnight, on any day, I had not done something new, I failed the experiment. So as the weeks and months passed, the desire to succeed drove me on.

After 90-days I practically heard the click inside of me. I had re-wired how I lived, how I thought, how I perceived the world. I was always looking for new opportunities to learn, to experience, to be. Openness to the new had become a habit. Towards the end of the year, I was invited to speak about the experiment for a TED talk.

If you do nothing else this week to stimulate your thinking or challenge the status quo, just give yourself 18-minutes to watch the talk.

This is how we take personal responsibility for creativity and innovation. We train for it. We open our eyes to the possibilities all around us in our personal lives and form that habit. From then you see opportunity everywhere. To this day I still get emails and messages regularly, from people all over the world who have just watched the talk and taken on the experiment themselves. It has pushed people to start their own businesses, to recapture their spark and even reignited one musicians’ passion, jolting him from homelessness back in to the recording studio. These stories always warm my heart but the core concept holds true.

Train for Innovation

Unless you train your mind to look for the new, to experience the new, to embrace the new, how can you expect new ideas to form? In our uncertain times, do something to escape the routine. Force yourself to interface with the new. Seek out new places to visit and to work from. Actively engage with new thinking, be that podcasts, TED talks or online events. Seek out new people to talk to, both personally and professionally. As a leader, think about stimulating non-routine behaviours with your teams.

The Innovation Sludge is real, and this time there is no 9-year-old older sister to pull you to safety. Trust me, new is fun. In 2022, let your New Year be just that, new.

What’s the point if you just copy your behaviours of last year?

This blog is a content extract from Ken’s renowned keynote “The Innovation Engine: Fuelling Personal Success”, one of the most booked speeches during the pandemic by leaders seeking to motivate and inspire their teams.

Click here  to book this fun, challenging and insightful speech for your virtual event or the keynote + workshop option for your live team get-together.

Ken Hughes is now considered one of the World’s leading speakers on the subject of customer experience, consumer values, organizational change, leadership and agility. His virtual and live in-person keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought-provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery.

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A blog to  inspire and delight

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A blog to  inspire and delight