As more businesses seek to transform and disrupt, the under-explored phenomenon of innovation stress is likely to increase. To mark National Stress Awareness Month 2019, we shine a spotlight on the detrimental impact of pushing employees to innovate without clear guidance.
Although others have used the term ‘innovation stress’ before me, it is not a concept yet in frequent use. For me it refers to the way in which continuous and unrelenting calls for people to be innovative in the workplace can create stress and, consequently, make them less innovative.
Stress is in effect a mismatch between demands and resources. If we have too much of one (emails that need answering, clients to visit) and too little of the other (not enough time, no car at our disposal), we get stressed.
The curious thing about innovation is that, in some respects, it is designed to create stress. This is in part because innovation isn’t the easiest thing to define, but also because it represents limitless potential. The latter might seem like a very good thing indeed, but it also means that no matter how innovative we are, we always could have pushed ourselves further.
Within business, innovation can become a vague demand that keeps demanding, with employees being well aware that they should innovate, but also constantly worrying that they’re not being innovative enough.
Innovation stress makes teams less innovative.
A team might thus be afflicted by innovation stress if it is asked to present creative and novel solutions or offerings, but given little in the way of concrete guidance as to what counts as innovation and what would be an acceptable end result.
People in the team might not voice such concerns, as they fear that doing so will label them as difficult and non-innovative thinkers. However, as my research has shown time and time again, this merely adds on to perceived innovation stress.
While members of a team may all feel somewhat unsure of innovation demands, they may not dare to raise this with the group. The result? A stressed team where each member thinks the others are far surer about innovation than they actually are.
The damaging impact of innovation stress
Innovation stress comes with many downsides. Although a small amount can focus a team or an individual, it often tends to compound and give rise to many negative effects.
Stress affects physical health, which makes individuals and teams less productive and less creative, as ideas get crowded out by ongoing worry. Stress also makes people less attentive, which increases the chance of new opportunities being missed and errors being made.
Perhaps most importantly, innovation stress makes teams less innovative, as worrying about what the (unclear) innovation demands makes it more difficult for employees to know what they should be working on.
We should also not forget the resource side of the equation. A common source of innovation stress is the perceived lack of adequate resources, be these financial, technological or time based. If a team is asked to innovate yet feels it doesn’t have, for example, the time to really develop ideas, stress will set in. As team members continue to work with what they feel is inadequate support, the aforementioned symptoms start playing out.
Innovation stress can hamper a creative culture in even the most capable business.
Signs that indicate your team are suffering from innovation stress
You might think that innovation stress would never affect your organisation, as you would never give vague instructions, demand the impossible or be anything less than generous with resources.
However my work with organisations often leads me to find executives who, while trying to push for innovation, do all three. Thus it becomes important to keep an eye out for innovation stress in order to counteract such feelings.
Here are the key warning signs to watch out for:
The team’s ideas seem scattershot. Bereft of clear guidance, and under pressure to perform, the team begins suggesting ideas without a clear pattern or path ahead. Rather than trying to solve meaningful problems, the team simply suggests ideas to see which ones might stick. Whilst not a critical problem, it can signal a loss of innovation focus.
A marked lack of enthusiasm. Innovation, and the right to work therewith, should be meaningful and energising, owing to our innate desire to create. If a team sees innovation as just another drudgery, this indicates they no longer are engaged with it all. Stress often leads to apathy, as individuals and teams no longer feel in control.
New projects are represented as innovations without explanation. As a team becomes less engaged and less focused, innovation goes from being a specific thing to being just a buzzword, one that can be attached to anything. At this point, the work is no longer seen as meaningful.
The team starts over-promising. As a team starts finding innovation less and less meaningful, it can start weaving a narrative that’s designed to obfuscate the real situation. Much like a failing startup that promises upcoming disruptions, a team might start offering up what they believe leaders wish to hear, regardless of whether this has any connection with reality.
So what can a leader, or HR, do to tackle innovation stress?
First, look over what demands regarding innovation are made on teams. Are these demands reasonable, well explicated and bolstered with clear examples? Does everyone in the team know what’s expected of them, in a manner that they feel is meaningful and achievable?
Second, ensure that enough resources are dedicated to innovation – including mental support and adequate time. Do people see that there is a clear way to make innovation happen, or do they feel that they’re asked to magic innovation out of thin air?
Third, pay attention to whether the term is being slowly emptied of meaning. Is there a clear definition of what innovation is? Is there an ambition that the organisation wishes to realise through innovation? Are both these clearly communicated?
Innovation stress can hamper a creative culture in even the most capable business. That, however, doesn’t mean it cannot be combated. If leaders and HR pay attention to innovation stress as it emerges, they can quickly counteract it – for the benefit of individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.
Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and a leading keynote speaker. His new book Innovation for the Fatigued is out now, priced £14.99. Visit alfrehn.com to find out more.
Interested in exploring more on this topic? Read 'A new way to unleash creativity and innovation'
About Alf Rehn
Alf Rehn is a noted thought leader and professor in the fields of innovation and creativity. Having appeared on Thinkers50 Guru Radar in 2016, he is currently Professor of Innovation, Design and Management at the University of Southern Denmark. He is a popular international strategic adviser and professional speaker who has delivered close to 1,000 keynotes worldwide, advised Fortune 500 companies and was the first Westerner to keynote on innovation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. A best-selling author, he has been featured in The Financial Times, The Sunday Times and Harvard Business Manager.