Technology is seductive. Take a look at the devices that we carry around in our pockets or attach to our bodies – phones, monitors, bands and watches – each collecting, distributing and analyzing data. Think about how many of these you have – and think about their purpose. We use them for efficiency and optimization – to get things done better, faster and more reliably. They provide us with something that is missing – flexibility or the chance to gain some insight about our behaviors and actions.

As a New Year’s Resolution, a friend of mine purchased a FitBit and has been using it daily. He says it helps keep track of his activity. “I know how much exercise I get each day and each week. It monitors my heart rate and my sleep and reports back to me in a number of ways – from instant updates and reminders to email summaries and encouraging achievement badges. It gives me a focus on my health”, he explained. I loved the enthusiasm and excitement.

When we caught up recently, I was interested to find out how the FitBit experiment was going. Had he reached his goals? Did the data help? Did the device deliver?

To my surprise, he wasn’t even wearing the device.

“Hey, what happened to your watch?”, I asked innocently. “Did you lose it?”
“It’s not the watch, I lost”, he said. “It’s the motivation to track myself”.

Sensing that there was something more going on here, I pressed further. When we met in early January he was excited about this idea and had spent a great deal of time setting things up, identifying and thinking through his goals and setting an agenda. And even though it was cold outside, he was motivated to get out and run. What had changed?

“I realized the goal isn’t the goal”, he said. “It’s not about the watch – the technology, it’s about me”.

My friend had inadvertently fallen into Shiny Object Syndrome.

This condition is something that I see quite often in my work and in my private life. There is a mismatch between what people think they want and what they need. Often times, organizations will make investments in technology – put teams together and set ambitious targets for implementation and delivery – yet they under-invest in the change management, culture and empowerment that is required to create the return on investment that is planned. Most of us – people and businesses – rush towards the future without creating the culture that supports that future. We buy the watch but not the watchfulness.

Greg Satell, author of Mapping Innovation, says that while we tend to think innovation is about ideas, it’s really the people that innovation depends upon. And when it comes to people, it’s all about culture – about creating the conditions for invention and innovation to occur. He has identified four things that help to create an innovation culture:

  • Focus on problem solving
  • Safe spaces
  • Informal networks
  • Collaboration.

I broadly agree with these four but would reframe these as:

  1. Find the problems worth solving: No matter whether you are a startup or a large enterprise, there needs to be a disciplined and professional focus on identifying new problems to solve. It’s not about hipsters pulling all-nighters but about casting a professional eye over the short, medium and long term challenges facing your business and industry. Find the problems that are worth solving not the low hanging fruit of ideas that you can throw technology at.
  2. Create safe spaces for all your innovations: Sometimes new innovation doesn’t fit with your current business. Pre-emptively killing off interesting or challenging innovations signals danger to the culture you are trying to create.
  3. Strong ties and new blood: When you have teams that have worked together a long time, they can become stale or complacent. All-new teams can struggle to find a rhythm. The sweet spot is somewhere in-between – a balance of people who can work together with a dash of new blood to shake up the arteries is ideal.
  4. Diverse teams outperform all others: Hard driving A-type personalities won’t necessarily deliver your culture of innovation. The research indicates that the number of women in a group and a broader diversity of makeup is what you need to consciously create.

Nina Nets It Out: The last thing that we want our leaders to do is to fall into the trap of the bright and shiny object syndrome. Yes, we need to be aware of the technology and the opportunities that it presents, but we also need to set a vision and path to the future. And it’s a future we can’t see yet – it’s one we need to work hard to create.