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To drive successful innovation we have to tackle stress first’

Alf Rehn

In an age filled with fear and apprehension regarding the future of work, creativity and innovation were supposed to be the things that could save us. Perennially at the top of lists of what work-life skills will be central in the future, they are special in also bringing with them a promise of better work now. Contributor Alf Rehn, Professor of Innovation – University of Southern Denmark and author of Innovation for the Fatigued. 

By emphasising things such as “creative work” and “the innovative organisations”, companies make claims that imbue these terms with something akin to a promise of a better work-life. The idea is that if only we have more creativity and innovation, not only will the company do better, it (and work in it: will also be better.

The reality of the matter is nowhere near this rosy, however. Whilst no-one would argue that creativity and innovation are bad things, it would also be a mistake to assume that they have no dark or negative sides. Today, as calls for more creativity and innovation are constant and can create a deafening clamour in the organisation, we need to be aware of how innovation fatigue and innovation stress affect employees. Whilst these terms might sound somewhat unfamiliar, they are real afflictions in the contemporary organisation. 

Innovation fatigue refers to the tendency among e.g. employees to tire as calls and demands for innovation oversaturate people’s capacity to engage with the same. As innovation initiatives/workshops/consultants/seminars feature with increasing frequency in many organisations, the reaction to this will over time be one of fatigue and an increasing incapacity to muster enthusiasm for it all. Over time, employees may even start to think that the term is becoming devoid of meaning, as any and everything is referred to as a potential innovation. 

This can be compared with innovation stress, where incessant and aggressive calls for innovation, particularly if these are not followed up with the resources for the same, become a source of strain and tension in the organisation. As innovation is a vague and difficult to measure concept, and yet with a seemingly infinite potential, it is uniquely suited to create such stress. If managers demand “innovation” without giving clear guides what is meant by this and when employees can feel they’ve succeeded, they are in effect demanding something that can feel impossible to achieve. If this is then compounded by not giving people resources – such as time, tools, and material resources such as funds – we have a textbook case of how stress can emerge. 

This is not to say that innovation isn’t important, or that managers should not encourage creativity and innovation among their employees. However, engagements with innovation in organisations needs to be done in a manner that is mindful of the ways in which these can create fatigue and stress. A tense and tired organisation is not likely to do their best and most creative work, and often renewed calls for innovation or “thinking outside of the box” (that most vile of business clichés: can actually generate the opposite of the intended effect. As stressed employees try to live up to demands to be more innovative, they become decidedly more likely to simply state what they believe managers want to hear, and present ideas that would move the onus from them and onto others. 

If an organisation wishes to become more innovative, then, it is imperative that it pays attention to stress – of all kinds. Not only is stress known to be highly damaging for your health, but it can also nigh on paralyse your capacity for creative thought. If calls for innovation then serve to compound this effect, an organisation may find itself in a “death spiral of creativity”. Here, increasingly frantic demands make employees more and more stressed, and thus less and less able to respond to the demand. With innovation thus crippled, management may react by doubling down, with the attendant increases in stress and fatigue.

A sensible policy for innovation demands takes note of this, and treats the problem rather than exacerbating it. This can be done in a number of ways. One, by reviewing the internal language regarding innovation and making sure that this is clear, transparent, and shared. Examples can be very helpful here, as can listening to employee criticism with regards to innovation initiatives. Two, by making innovation targets and goals understandable and achievable. Here too examples help, but the core idea is to lessen stress by making it clear when employees have succeeded.

Three, by not making calls for creativity and innovation constant. Anything, if repeated enough, will tire and start to sound more and more meaningless. Innovation, as important as it is, isn’t free from this. Here, quality beats quantity – make calls for innovation matter. In short: Make calls for innovation meaningful and clear. Pay attention to stress and fatigue. Sometimes less is more – with less stress comes more innovation!

Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and a leading keynote speaker. His new book is titled Innovation for the Fatigued

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