Efficiency is doing what we already know how to do, but better and better. Innovation is about finding ways to succeed when we don't know what to do. It's unfair to pit these two concepts against each other because we need both, but it sets up a convenient framing for a short blog post.
Throughout my career, I've seen teams double-down on one of these actions when the other action would've been more appropriate. I've been a part of teams working to optimize a process (for efficiency) that was not yet validated as necessary in the first place. I've also been a part of teams that set out to "discover" a new way of doing things when a perfectly capable, well-understood approach already existed...we just needed to do it better.
I think groups of people are good at making things more efficient. I also think we can be good at innovating. In my opinion, the challenge is really about figuring out when to do which. This requires us to be able to take a step back and be able to say one of two hard truths:
- We know what we should be doing, but we're not good at it.
- We don't know what we should be doing.
Let's talk about the first bullet. Nobody likes to acknowledge they're bad at something or that they're performing poorly. In this scenario, we can't use ignorance as an excuse. We know what to do, but we aren't getting it done. If this is the case, we can put plans in motion to optimize for efficiency and effectiveness. We know what to do, so let's figure out how to do THAT better.
In the second bullet, we're acknowledging that we don't the answer. This is hard for us to do for a totally different reason than the first bullet. Many people believe their job is to have all the answers, so acknowledging that we don't know something is a hit to our personal identity. This was the biggest mental shift I had to make when I joined Pivotal Labs back in 2015 (now VMware Tanzu). The culture and operating model assumed that we didn't know all the answers, but that we were experts in figuring things out. I know that culture doesn't exist everywhere, but I think it's a secret requirement for fostering innovation inside of organizations.
I'll write more about working for efficiency and working for innovation, but for now, I wanted to set the framing so you can think about these challenges as you walk through your daily work routine. Is something broken because we aren't executing? Or is it broken because we don't know how to do this well?