There is no doubt that innovation is critical. Organizations that innovate thrive, and organizations that stagnate die. But why is innovation so difficult? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that some organizations are held prisoner by their ingrained mental models.
A mental model is the way in which an organization “sees” itself, its employees and its customers. It is the frame which explicitly or implicitly defines the organization’s purpose and how it goes about its business. While mental models certainly have their value, they begin to entrap an organization when they are not adjusted to account for a changing environment. If the environment changes, such as customer needs and the competitive landscape, and the organization’s mental models aren’t updated to recognize those changes, the organization stagnates.
A key element of an organization’s mental models are “assumptions”: assumptions which employees make about the organization’s purpose and capabilities, assumptions employees make about themselves (leaders, co-workers, etc.) and assumptions about the organization’s customers. Surfacing and challenging these assumptions are part of the process of unlocking the organization and adjusting the mental models.
The process of surfacing and challenging assumptions is a key part of developing a more innovative organization. Like most processes, it is deceivingly simple to follow but extraordinarily difficult to do. The process is as follows:
Surface the assumptions: Ask yourself and your organization: “What do we know, think and feel about our organization, our competition and our customers?” As you can see, these simple questions can take days or even months to answer if you approach it from an organization-wide perspective.
It’s critical to unearth both the spoken and unspoken assumptions about the organization. The assumptions which are talked about openly are the spoken ones. However, the unspoken assumptions are often the more insidious. For example, I once had a client proclaim in private to me that his organization was where all the “C” students work. By having such a low opinion of his employees, he kept the bar low and accepted “C” efforts in driving the organization forward in its changing environment.
Challenge the assumptions: Once each assumption is surfaced, ask: “Is this true, how do we know it’s true and does it hold us back or move us forward?” In my “C” student example above, a quick review of some employees’ academic records quickly proved his assumption not to be true. Instead it opened his eyes to the fact that he was not as challenging as he could be, not driving his group to do their best, accepting “C” work from would-be “A” students.
Eliminate or change assumptions which are holding the organization back: In this final step, the formal eradication and adjustment of assumptions are made. The key question to ask at this point is: “Will this change make us more innovative?” By making my client see that his group was not all “C” students, he adjusted his expectations and in turn made the work of his team more challenging, engaging and innovative.