The urgent need to innovate seems very obvious today. However, many obstacles remain both at structural and cultural levels.

[USI] Top management needs to “unleash innovation”, but “may also be threatened” by it

Interview with Christian Monjou, a member of the faculty at Worcester College, University of Oxford, UK, and a specialist in English-speaking civilisations, on the sidelines of his talk at the Unexpected Sources of Inspiration (USI) event held on 16-17 June in Paris. Christian Monjou encourages companies to address managerial issues through the prism of art – both the plastic arts and also performing arts such as theatre and opera.

What are the main obstacles to innovation? How can they be explained?

An individual’s natural reluctance. If you want to innovate you have to destroy. We don’t like innovation very much in so far as it forces change on us. A company is founded on the entrepreneur’s prophetic intuition which responds to a question put by the world. Once this response has been found, it has to be reproduced, and in order to do that you have to put processes in place. But the problem with processes is that repeating and perfecting them tends to become the actual goal of the company. And then the company forgets that the world is in motion and that motion means the company has to change.

You specialise in English-speaking civilisations. Do French and British people behave very differently when it comes to innovation?

Not necessarily. It is true however that France is obsessed by a sort of absolutist model whereby change always has to come from the centre and from the top. We have a tradition of state governance which has had a major influence on the way business and industry are run in this country. So much so that you often see French people wavering between political governance and private governance. This attitude is extremely rare in the English-speaking countries.

Isn’t there a kind of paralysis due to the fact that when it comes to innovation companies simply don’t know where to start?

Yes, and that’s a serious problem but it’s nevertheless perfectly normal. I don’t think anyone really likes innovating. The heavier the structure, the harder it is to budge. It’s very easy to innovate in small organisations. Immobility comes with size. Newness upsets, destabilises.

To innovate you have to look elsewhere. If you remain stuck with the “this is how we do things around here” mentality you’re probably condemned to repeat the same thing, and you will justify that by claiming that you’re improving it. Innovation is all about trying to get something else up and running in line with where you perceive the world to be going.

Is it absolutely necessary to win over top management in order to innovate, or can innovation be ‘bottom up’? Where does the energy have to come from?

It can come from the ground up, yes. But if that happens it will never really break through unless top management are acutely on the lookout for innovation. I believe that one of the key roles of top management is to be able to unleash innovation. I think that those who are closest to a process can see quite clearly how it can be improved. But the hierarchical structure is sometimes set up in such a way that nobody asks their opinion. And if no-one asks them, they aren’t going to risk speaking up. So a lot depends on the top management being wide awake. It’s up to them to ensure that innovation isn’t stifled, that the company encourages innovation. But the position of top management can also be threatened by innovation.

Isn’t innovation the DNA of every company?

Companies can only survive if they innovate. But they are often tempted to stay stuck in the “this is how we do things around here” approach. We tend to talk about two types of innovation – disruptive innovation and incremental innovation. Disruptive innovation is rarer but incremental innovation is essential. Here once again top management needs to make staff feel that the small progressive steps made day after day amidst the piled up accretions of what already exists can generate a snowball effect and lead to innovation.

What human skills do companies and institutions need in order to innovate?

Awareness! Triple awareness to be more precise! First of all companies need to be aware of the specific ways in which the fact that the world is constantly on the move affects the company, and what sort of changes this changing world is calling for. Then the leader has to be aware of him/herself, aware of his/her own hesitations. And thirdly there’s the fact that you have to help other people to bring out their innovative side and protect them because people who innovate are rarely popular. In seminars I often tell company heads: “Look, when people come to you and accuse other colleagues of being destructive, subversive and rebellious, there’s no need to look any further. There you have the innovators!”

How do you explain that, in spite of this, there’s still been a fascination with innovation, in recent years, as witnessed by the surge in the number of startups?

It’s very simple. Today’s economic situation means that there are no alternatives. At the end of the 18th century and during part of the 19th, Europe was the cradle of innovation. Today this is less so, but we shouldn’t be too pessimistic! It’s clear that we must avoid the political-ideological setup stifling innovation in France and across Europe. But today you do get the feeling that there’s an urgency to innovate.