Our ability to dream unleashes innovation in the 21st century of possibilities

Lately I have been questioning the right and wrong I was brought up to believe. As I get older, I find that some of the notions that were instilled in me and labeled as being wrong actually now feel very right to me.

One example is the society I live in distinguishes between the developed and the developing or underdeveloped world.  This distinction points out that one got it right and the other is still figuring it out.  It also assumes that the developing countries have yet to adopt the values of the superior, developed ones. Having many friends who live in what we on the west label the “Third World,” I always feel guilty when I use these terms as my friends have taught me so much and brought so much into my life about what’s possible. They are the ones who still dream.

A lot of the rules that have been written dictate to us what we need to dream and aspire for. And the same thought keeps running through my head, what if what I was brought up to believe as being so “right” is actually misleading?

In my work, I am finding that while employees believe their leaders have all the answers, that’s far from the truth. It’s like when we were children and believed our parents knew how to navigate life and the world and we found out years later that they were simply doing the best they can. There is a paternalistic hope that the people “at the top” got there because they knew what they were doing. And on most days, while they have the technical or scientific knowledge of their industry, they are making it up as they go, trying to find the latest management practice to implement. And at the same time, encouraging everyone to innovate when they themselves may have stopped dreaming.

The vision, mission and strategy are important elements for organizations to have everyone share why your organization exists and how you plan to implement it. But how many people understand what their specific role is in that framework? How much energy goes into building a common purpose where people know how to play their position? How much is real and how much is a PowerPoint deck you refer to when you do your quarterly reviews? Where does innovation sit in that framework? Is it integrated? Do people get rewarded and recognized for their innovation, which means successes and failures? If 90 per cent of innovation experiments “fail” are people free to fail nine out of 10 times?

The limiting challenge of innovation

John Perkins writes: “Our perception is the single most important factor in shaping the future.” In our concrete cities, we have office buildings where executives ask their employees to innovate. They create campaigns and slogans to help encourage their people to help them be more successful. And yet, they rob them of time to think and create with endless meetings and hours of email therapy. How many times have you heard a colleague say “I need to catch up and do my email”? How many times have you said that to yourself? When did ‘doing email’ equate to working?

I recently spoke to an executive who was exhausted from having to fly to meetings from London to San Francisco every other week. And having worked in hi-tech for years, I know firsthand that there are innovative ways to connect people and reduce the human wear and tear of travel. But in her corporate culture, the definition and need for face-to-face connection is eroding people’s health and capacity to think. Dana shared  with me that what she misses most about her work is the pure time to think. How could she possibly be innovative without the time to step back, breathe and think about what is possible? While she used to spend time thinking and preparing, she is now in perpetual catch-up mode when it comes to her work. Like her colleagues, she spends so much time going from meeting to meeting that she doesn’t have time for her work that gets pushed to evenings and weekends.

And here is the quandary, which is much larger than time. How can employees innovate when they have lost the ability to dream? Can you truly innovate in an environment where the structure in which you work constrains your ability to dream of what is possible?

Dreaming of possibilities is our opportunity

If the only constant is change and we know that change is happening across every industry, how do we create a culture where this principle is ingrained in how we work every day? How do we move innovation to a core capability that is embedded in the organization’s cultural DNA?

  1. Facilitate dreaming

As children, we spent most of our times dreaming and playing. Time stood still for us as we created a world of possibilities. Then at some point in our lives, we were told to stop “daydreaming” and live in reality. We were told to put our dreams aside and become practical.

Now as employees, we are no longer those children, who are carefree to dream and innovate. And I find it ironic that when I attend innovation summits as a keynote speaker, I often find the rooms set up in a way to bring that child within each of us back.  The rooms are set up to spark creativity and often have toys, candy and fun items to play with.

To truly innovate, we need not only time but to go back and dream. Before we jump into solutions, we need to ask questions. We need to be silly and think about what’s possible without constraints.

  1. Bring people together

And that doesn’t always have to be in person. Some of the most powerful meetings I’ve been to were across multiple time zones using technology where we saw each other and had conversations. When you get the right group of people together and enable the conversation with the right technology that connects them in conversation, magic happens.

Having conversations is a 21st century practice of allowing people to think and create in an unstructured way. Innovation happens when we allow for divergent conversation and often conflicts in thinking. We have been convinced that we must manage conflict but often, having some conflict allows us to come up with new ways.

  1. Enabling innovation

For most organizations enabling innovation is an afterthought and the root cause of why it doesn’t become part of the DNA of the organization. If your systems and processes don’t allow for people to have the time to dream, create and fail, you will have limited success.

While having a blueprint is important, it is much more important to design how you work and how you recognize and reward people as part of your overall innovation purpose. Ask yourself whether your technology enables people to connect and have conversations? Does your incentive program send the messages you want when it comes to innovation? What course corrections do you need to make?

I will leave you with this thought. The amount of dreaming taking place in your organization is correlated to your level of true innovation. Help people dream and create what is possible and you will see your people and organization thrive. And also make sure your systems and processes encourage it!

Ayelet Baron
Ayelet Baron
Ayelet combines lessons learned from more than a decade as a high-tech industry executive with her roots as a researcher, change catalyst and strategic communicator. This rare blend of expertise enables her to assess and advise individuals and organizations that seek to embrace new ways of working. She helps leaders transform and build healthy and resilient organizations. She is also a sought after keynote speaker on collaboration, leadership and building 21st century organizations. Her award winning business book, Our Journey to Corporate Sanity, helps you navigate a new path for business as a conscious 21st century leader.

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