Perfectionism and Innovation Fluency

There has been a lot of talk over the past decade about the importance of Innovation as the speed of business increases, and the difficulty of creating an innovative organization.

SociaLens digital fluency framework

As a result of our research, we have found it helpful to consider innovation as a fluency which can be broken down into three major sets of skills:

  1. The ability to critically reflect on the past and present situation
  2. The ability to generate creative ideas for a possible future
  3. The ability to openly experiment with imperfect ideas early and often before they can guarantee that their ideas will succeed

Interestingly, our research revealed that people with these abilities seem to be  able to use digital media like Twitter, internal collaboration tools, etc. more easily than people who did not. Why? Because information sharing and meaning making on most of these digital platforms is far more complex, where people can take ideas out of context, forward them to friends, mash them up with other things, all at a speed (information can travel across the globe instantly) and scale (a single message can easily reach thousands of people at once) that is very different from previous technologies like email, telephone and memos. And the more complex the situation, the more a person or group needs to be fluent in the three elements of innovation.

An Example

In one of the organizations that we talked to in our research, more than one of the employees made a self-observation that their initial discomfort with tools like Twitter felt similar to their discomfort when asked to share half-formed ideas in a collaboration session with employees, or to give a presentation for which they are unprepared. To them these digital tools feel as if they are forcing them to share half-formed ideas which might be misunderstood, misappropriated or just be a waste of time for colleagues. As a result, the adoption of digital collaboration tools within the organization has been slow, despite the fact that the organization displays many of the other traits that would seem to suggest that adoption would be more rapid, including a very high level of interaction fluency (more on interaction fluency here).

So what’s going on here? At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s probably a sort of perfectionism ( i also suffer from this malady), which can squash the third element of innovation fluency– the ability to experiment. And without a comfort with experimentation, the use of public digital tools (even ones that are public only within an organization) can feel daunting–like the feeling one gets when hitting “reply all” to a 100-person email (for more on this feeling, this blog post on social media adoption might help).  As a result, the organization may have been missing out on the “..serendepitous discovery of new connections between previously disconnected people and ideas..” that, in the words of the CEO, is a key for the organization’s success.

Indicators that the People In Your Organization Might Have Interaction Fluency (using Twitter as an example):

  1. You are able to quickly take in a situation, determine things like the broader context, the power structures at work and the potential implications for action or inaction in the situation. For example, a person with high fluency would be able to look at a digital conversation by co-workers and within a few seconds figure out the what’s really going on politically, psychologically, etc.
  2. You are able to use your critical insights to rapidly generate lots of creative ideas for how to change that situation. A person with high fluency would be able to, within a few seconds, be able to generate three or more different creative ideas for contributions that she could make to the conversation.
  3. You are able to put your ideas out there in ways that avoid catastrophic failure, but that welcome an acceptable level of risk. A person with high fluency would be comfortable experimenting by adding one or two of those creative ideas to the conversation without a full knowledge of the outcome.

A Note on Interdependence

All three of these elements are highly inter-dependent. A person who is comfortable experimenting, but who is not skilled at critically assessing the situation may be taking risks of which they are unaware, potentially resulting in catastrophe. A person who is only comfortable critically assessing a situation and generating creative ideas may never see those ideas implemented. Strong innovation fluency requires all three of these, if not in an individual, then in a group.

A Note on My Struggle With Interaction Fluency

As i sit here, ready to press the “publish” button that will make this post public to the world, and the misunderstandings, critiques, risks that public sharing brings, i am struggling with my own lack of fluency in this area. Should i publish it even though i know there are grammatical errors? Should i spend another hour editing this? Nope. These ideas need to get out into the world, where you can help us think them through in the comments below. So what do you think?

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5 Responses to Perfectionism and Innovation Fluency

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  4. Kevin Reilly says:

    I wish you would provide a link to the research you cite, if it has been published. How did you come up with the three sets of skills?

  5. christian says:

    Hi Kevin,

    We are just about to publish our book on Digital Fluency, which talks more about this research. A sample chapter is available at the top of this post:

    The best way to know when it is available is to follow this blog, or to follow us on Twitter at @SociaLens.

    The three sets of skills came from our observations of a number of people who were having trouble innovating as we describe it above, both in the use of digital technology, and in other parts of their work. The specific skills are reflected in a lot of popular literature like the IDEO concept of Design Thinking , and also in more academic literature like Herb Simon’s Science of the Artificial , Nelson and Stolterman’s The Design Way and others. Interestingly, one of the most accessible descriptions i’ve found of innovation/design thinking, and the one that most informed the way we framed it in this post and in our book so that it would be easy to understand, was written by the US Army in their FM 5-0 Operations Manual .

    Oh, and you may also want to look at this paper on different dimensions of perfectionism .

    Thanks for stopping by!

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