When it Comes to Innovation, Habit Trumps Discipline

What are the habits in your personal life? Things like brushing your teeth twice a day, getting dressed, a glass of red wine with dinner, washing up the dirty dishes in the sink, putting on your seat-belt when you get in the car, going to the gym, eating everything on your plate, locking the door when you leave the house, …

What about your professional life? Perhaps they are things like the weekly status meeting with your team, checking e-mail every few minutes, adding appointments to your calendar immediately, interrupting colleagues when you walk by their desk, packing or buying the same lunch every day, taking the same route home, …

I’m not making any judgement about whether these are good or bad, effective or ineffective, productive or wasteful. I’m just saying these are habits, which means you do them without forcing yourself to do them.

What if you could make innovation a habit?

Innovation is everybody’s business now. It’s not just something you can “leave to the R&D team”.

But it’s not easy to innovate when everybody is too busy trying to get their daily work done. And in our fast-changing world, it’s often a struggle to just get that daily work done. So how can you possibly find the time for innovation?

It’s tempting to say you’ll innovate “tomorrow”, when things quieten down. But tomorrow never comes!

But what if innovation was a habit – just like brushing your teeth or checking Facebook every few minutes? Then you wouldn’t have to force yourself to do it – you would just do it.

Crucially, you wouldn’t need “discipline”, because that’s too much like hard work.

When it comes to innovation, habit trumps discipline.

OK, but what does that mean in practice?

Here are four ways you can create positive habits for innovation: time, space, money, and people.

1. Make TIME for innovation.

Do you set aside regular time for innovation?

This doesn’t have to be as generous as Google’s famous (and now obsolete) “20% time” for employees to work on anything they wanted. You could create much simpler habits, such as:

  • Leaving work early on Friday afternoons
  • Hosting an innovation meeting at the same time each week
  • Setting aside 15 minutes every day when you wake up

It might even be as simple as starting your weekly team meeting by asking everybody to share one innovative idea they have seen in the past week (Thanks, Nils Vesk, for this idea).

2. Find the right SPACE for innovation.

Don’t wait for the annual conference on Hamilton Island. Find or create spaces for innovation in your regular work. For example, this could be:

  • Working in the cafe down the road instead of sitting at the office desk
  • A walking meeting rather than a sit-down meeting
  • For distributed teams: An informal videoconference call with pizza or coffee for all attendees

Different things work for different people, so let them each choose the individual innovation space that works best for them.

3. Set aside MONEY for innovation.

Every month, I take 3% of the salary I pay myself and put it into a separate Technology/Gadgets bank account, which is purely for buying technology, gadgets and other tools (Thanks, Michael Harrison, for this idea). It means I have the budget to invest in new technology even if I can’t completely justify the need for it.

I also put 10% of my salary into an Education bank account, which I use for conferences, online courses, books, and other learning resources. Again, because the money is already put aside, I can use it when I want it, and I don’t have to weigh it up against anything else (that would take discipline!).

You don’t have to follow exactly the same formula, but I hope you adopt the principle: Set money aside for innovation, and use it. You can make this work for yourself personally and for your team’s budget as well. It’s much easier to set aside the money in advance than try to justify spending it later.

4. Surround yourself with the right PEOPLE for innovation.

Make it a habit to hang out with people who challenge your thinking, share different ideas, and have diverse backgrounds and experiences.

For example, for a few years, I hosted a monthly non-fiction book club and discussion group. It was a diverse group, including people from IT, marketing, high school education, aged care, health and fitness, and more. We didn’t solve all the world’s problems, but I always left with something new to consider and apply in my life. Because it was a regular event, it was a habit for me.

When we get into routines or get very busy, it’s all too easy to interact with all the same people all the time (even in social media). It’s good to have a “tribe”, but staying only in that tribe can stifle innovation.

So what can YOU do to make innovation a habit?

Make no mistake: If you’re not innovating, you’re falling behind. And if you don’t make innovation a habit, it rarely happens.


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