Monday, September 27, 2021

What to innovate now

 For years, actually almost two decades now, I've been working with corporations, government agencies and non-profits to help them generate new ideas and create new products and services.  From new medical devices to new banking products, to new consumer appliances and more, I've worked on a number of innovation projects in a wide range of industries.

Over time, as innovation has matured somewhat, many innovation consultants began to reference Doblin's Ten Types model.  This is a great mode that I constantly refer back to with my clients, to convince them to think about innovation beyond product innovation.  Today, experience innovation, process innovation and service innovation is as important as a new product.

But all of this innovation activity seems somewhat quaint, like planning to take your Model T out on the highway, or bringing a pocket knife to a gun fight, in light of what's happening in the market.  Product innovation is of course necessary for survival.  You've got to create new products as older products age out, or as new competitors create compelling new offerings.  You've got to create new services and new experiences, because that's the way the market is trending.

But what may be most important right now, regardless of your innovation maturity, may be to innovate how you operate.  Getting fast, nimble and closer to customers will require that you take a long, hard look at your operations, structures and business models.  Innovating your organization may be the most important priority now.  Eventually, as well, you'll need to innovate how you innovate.

Everyone is talking about transformation

Every firm talks about transformation, and for good reason.  The pace of so many things has changed, and in almost every case change has accelerated.  Companies need to be faster, more nimble, more agile to compete in the existing marketplace, and everywhere you go, you hear the resounding phase "digital transformation".

Digital transformation is, of course, important, but in many ways the concept should be simply "transformation" - that is, how do we transform the company, how it operates, how it services customers, how it creates value - to meet modern and emerging changes?

If you need digital transformation to achieve this, then fine, it's digital transformation.  In my experience, most organizations don't really need the "digital" part at first.  What they need to do is to innovate how they work, how they structure and how they create value.  Then, and only then, should they worry about layering in the "digital" part.  Accelerating or digitizing a poor structure or unnecessary process makes the useless even faster.  

Innovating your organization

What would you change about your organization to make it more nimble, more agile, and bring it closer to customers?  Or, to put this in an innovation phrasing "How might we create a more nimble, agile organization that has greater customer intimacy?

This question indicates why transformation should be led and informed by innovation.  Too often, I fear, the goals of transformation become information technology goals and implementations, rather than solutions and outcomes that truly meet company and customer needs.  This is why "digital" transformation, while necessary, can I think lead companies astray.  Too often, digital transformation becomes framed by what you can digitize and implement in software.  And, as we've found over time, software eventually becomes a shackle, not always an accelerator.

Innovating the organization

What should be happening now, and continually, is an innovation effort focused on making the company more like what it aspires to be:  faster, if fast is the need, agile, if agile is the need, and so on.  There should be a continuous set of activities and innovation teams exploring what the company needs to change in order to succeed, and how to achieve it.  Then, and only then, should we talk about transformation, and determine which transformations need to be digital.

Of course, some digital transformation must occur, because all companies are creating and managing far more data than ever before, and there is value in that data that should be extracted.  In this case we might ask "How might we create insights and revenue streams from the data we are collecting" and the outcome might be a "digital" transformation, or we may simply find ways to generate revenue from the data we have.

What to innovate now, based on innovation maturity

So, in effect what I am saying is, you need to be doing several types of innovation (incremental and disruptive) for several types of outcomes (product, process and experience) in several different product groups or business units all simultaneously.  And, what you need to be doing beyond all those "table stakes" activities I just described is to constantly innovate your organization, hierarchy, operation and value proposition, which will lead to transformation, even digital transformation.

If your company is a "mature" innovator, then what you need to add is a focus inward, using innovation as a tool to sharpen your ability to operate. While continuing the other innovation you are already doing.  And, if your company is innovating now, you should plan to consider innovating how you innovate.

If your company is new to innovation, keep doing some incremental product innovation as a way to create new revenue streams, and begin to focus on using innovation to help improve your operations, which will in turn make you a better innovator.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:32 AM 0 comments

Friday, September 17, 2021

The best of times or worst of times for innovation

 Lately, when I talk to people in large organizations, universities and corporations, I feel like I'm in the middle of a country western song, or a Dickens novel.  People and leaders tell me they are distracted, dismayed, disappointed, exhausted, and wondering what the future will hold.  It seems difficult to make decisions in the era of COVID, where every peak we reach seems to be a false peak.

It could be the worst of times

It's difficult to 1) find people 2) keep people 3) decide where they should work (in the office or at home).  Working with and through COVID over 18 months has been a huge distraction, but worse it has created supply chain issues.  Many companies cannot get accurate forecasts about raw materials, and some costs have gone up.  

In this environment of constantly changing factors, where it can be difficult to understand the best information or plan for the future, where markets seem to shift constantly and employees and consumers are inconstant, it seems exceptionally difficult to do more than to simply hold on.  In this moment, in the early fall of 2021, it seems that most businesses are doing exactly that, holding on, battening down the hatches, waiting out the storm.  Very few decisions about strategy, or new direction, are getting made.

Many employees have had enough, of (sometimes) low pay, or uncertain futures, or simply don't want to go back to the office, or in some cases are deciding to take on an entirely new course or trajectory in their lives.  Many service industry jobs are left open, and I worry about the future of health care, where so many doctors and nurses, and other first responders, have worked incredibly hard and without a lot of thanks or reward.

In this "worst of times" scenario, we are seeing a significant pull back in many larger organizations in regard to strategy, their future and innovation.  In very uncertain environments, it seems logical to wait out the storm, keep doing what you do best, and not spending a lot of time trying to understand a constantly shifting and evolving future.  Since most innovation only pays off quarters or even years later, few companies want to invest in costs today that may not pay off in the future.

It could be the best of times

It was recently reported in my home state of North Carolina that new company formation grew at the highest level in decades.  Much of that is because larger firms are holding the line on growth, and people are leaving larger companies to start their own new companies in response to slow growth or uncertainty.  In every economic downturn or period of market uncertainty, this same phenomenon is repeated.

What will we see from the explosion of new companies?  If history is any guide, we will see a really mixed bag of outcomes.  Many of these new companies will fail.  Some will create interesting new products, services and business models.  A few will upset the order of existing industries or markets, the way Airbnb or Uber did in a downturn not so long ago.

When many companies freeze or falter, there is always an opportunity for smaller, nimble firms that are willing to risk more to innovate.  And in this market, at this time, I think we are going to see a significant opportunity to innovate around business models and experiences.

People have learned to live differently due to COVID, and no matter how much some people and businesses may want society to shift back to the ways we were living and working before the pandemic, a lot of people have enjoyed living and working at home.  Some have even given up city life for new homes in more exurban or even rural locations.  Companies that can serve these customers may find new opportunities. 

Like boxers who have taken a hard jab to the jaw, many larger firms are swaying, uncertain, staggering just a bit.  They've lost their stride, and the opportunity for smaller, nimble firms to strike may be in the next year.  In this regard, the time is ripe for entrepreneurial firms and some small and midsized businesses to strike with innovation.  

The conditions are relatively ripe, and unlike in other downturns there is still plenty of money and venture capital available.  In fact, given what the government is doing to prop up the economy, money is probably the least of an innovator's or entrepreneur's worries.  

The wide open opportunity

I scanned the list of startups and entrepreneurial firms in my area, and the list is full of AI and ML companies, low code opportunities, and cloud opportunities.  Of course, to be a part of one of those teams you need a lot of technical skills.  I'll stipulate that there is a big opportunity right now to create low-tech opportunities as well. There are plenty of needs and gaps in the market that are waiting to be filled, and, what's more, plenty of people who have good experience and knowledge leaving larger firms and looking for new opportunities.

Components are in place and in play:  money, needs and talent.

The difference between the two views of the market is risk.  Larger firm will continue to see a lack of clarity, significant uncertainty and will consider the market too risky to invest in.  Smaller companies will see a breadth of opportunity, plenty of financial and human resources, and significant opportunities or gaps in the market place.

While large firms argue with their employees about where they should work, and when they should be in the office, and continue to focus on short term goals and outcomes, smaller firms and entrepreneurs should have a field day.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:32 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Why innovation must become the new core competency

 I've been thinking a lot lately about innovation in corporations, first, because that's what I've been doing for close to twenty years, and second, because I kept wondering when the switch would flip and we'd see more consistent innovation from large corporations on a continuing basis.  After all, innovation isn't really all that hard - good ideas will pop up all the time.  But recognizing, validating and implementing new ideas IS hard, and this is why innovation will always be the strange uncle corporations keep in the attic.

Don't get me wrong.  Every company wants more innovation, to drive better revenue, profits and market share.  But what most companies get wrong is that they want to create an innovation and then make it palatable and safe, to fit within the standards and norms of the existing business, like capturing lightning in a bottle.  New ideas that are at first radical become profitable, then draw competition, and then become mainstream ideas.  So the cycle must repeat if a company is going to stay ahead or even abreast of the competition.

Here's where the issues start.

It's difficult to create a process, a culture and a trained set of people who can create innovations, migrate them into current product or service portfolios, and then return to start new innovative ideas all over again.  Once a company finds and implements a good idea, they are far more concerned with driving as much revenue and profit from that idea, rather than sending the team back for new ideas, or sending a new team off for an entirely new opportunity or market space.  Innovating once is easy, innovating consistently over time is difficult.

The reason innovating over time is difficult is because companies are engineered for efficiency, not for change, not for flexibility or variability.  When good new ideas emerge, they will typically have one of several impacts:

  • They replace an existing, profitable product, which creates resistance from the team managing the existing product
  • They target an adjacent market or segment, which requires new marketing and launch investment, drawing marketing dollars away from other existing products
  • They are so interesting or revolutionary that they could threaten the very business model of the company.

If one good idea can meet this much resistance, what will a stream of good ideas encounter?

Cultural, strategic and process imperative

After 20 years of working in innovation, I can say that it will be difficult to create a sustaining innovation capability, one that constantly creates new ideas and brings them to market, unless innovation is a cultural imperative (the culture believes and desires innovation), a strategic imperative (the strategy of the business, reinforced with funding and governance, encourages innovation) and a process imperative (there are methods and processes ingrained in how the company works).  In other words, innovation must become a core competency.

This means that companies that are innovative now are likely to become less innovative over time (think entropy) unless new energy is added to the company.  Companies that don't have a deep investment in innovation will talk about innovation and will attempt a few innovation projects but will never master the idea of continuous innovation.

Innovation is more important than ever before

All the talk of agile, nimble organizations powered by data and operating in new, flat hierarchies with excellent communication means nothing if companies cannot remain relevant to customers.  With so many new competitors and new entrants, older firms that cannot adapt to new innovative models will become rapidly obsolete.  Even newer, agile companies, while fast, will falter if they cannot create new  and meaningful ideas and bring them to market.

We need to stop evaluating companies based on size, or cash hoard, or patents, and start evaluating them on how they can identify, evaluate and bring new ideas to market quickly, even ideas that may disrupt themselves or their industries.  For years, great companies like IBM promoted stability and longevity, and when the pace of change was slower that model was useful.  Now, companies need to demonstrate agility, speed and adaptability to be able to compete and to stay relevant.  

Creating an innovation core competency

We need a new way of thinking and organizing our businesses to ensure that the core capability of a business is to create interesting ideas and bring them to market quickly, and to be able to repeat that process. 

Instead of operating in siloes, which create barriers to innovation, businesses could organize around customers or processes.  Instead of focusing only on product innovation, companies could expand their innovation definitions to consider services, processes and business models.  Instead of rigidity in structure and operations, companies need to become much more nimble and adaptable to changing market conditions.

Starting with the idea that the purpose of a company is to create a customer, then the organizing principles should be to understand what the customer wants and needs (marketing/research), the ability to develop interesting and valuable ideas (innovation) and the ability to develop ideas and bring them to market (product/service development and launch).  But don't take this from me - Peter Drucker had this idea decades ago.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:21 AM 0 comments

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Innovation project or Innovation Capability?

I've been writing, speaking and consulting about innovation for over 15 years, and I'm constantly amazed by the different perspectives and definitions about innovation.  What can be a real positive force in an organization often turns into a neutral or even negative, because it is over-hyped, or does not deliver on unrealistic expectations, or is considered a one hit wonder.

Today, I'm not going to write about "innovation theater" - that is, the concept of talking about innovation and moving some pieces around but failing to achieve any meaningful benefits.  Innovation theater is very similar to what ecologists call "greenwashing" and both are bad for their respective movements.  Innovation theater happens when companies and executive talk up innovation but fail to do anything.

No, today I want to talk about the differences and problems when companies focus on innovation as a discrete project, versus what they really need, innovation as a competency or capability.

Innovation as a project

Of course, almost all innovation is a project - starting with a specific need or desire to create a new product or service, or to generate new revenues or gain new market share.  Then, a problem or opportunity is defined, a team designated, and the proposition is defined as an innovation activity.

Lack of organization or preparation

One problem when innovation is considered a one-off project is that there is frequently a lack of good organization or preparation, and the teams are often brought together to work on innovation as a side job, on top of their regular work.  This means their focus is divided and their loyalties lie with their day jobs.

There's some rationale to this "as a project" approach, because most executives want innovation now, and don't want to wait to build competencies, or are afraid to miss a market window or simply don't want to be seen as falling behind.  Plus, innovation as a project demonstrates some investment in innovation but controls for cost and risk. 

Lack of training/skills or experience 

Another problem with innovation as a discrete project is a lack of training.  Most innovation teams have little experience in innovation work, and while they've sat through brainstorming sessions (most of which were poorly executed) and can recognize ideas, they don't have training in innovation tools and approaches, and lack experience running innovation projects and programs.  In fact, the main metric for most innovation projects is how quickly they can get through the work, so the team can go back to their day jobs.

In most discrete innovation projects, the ideas generated are not distinguished from existing products or services, and thus many times the activity is deemed unsatisfactory or even a failure.  This is because there is little management engagement or support, a lack of preparation and skills, and a narrow definition of discovery and risk.

Emphasis on speed and risk reduction

When your main goal as an innovation team member is to get through and finished with the activity as quickly as possible, you aren't likely to introduce new thinking or expand your scope.

Innovation as a capability

Frankly, given the pace of change and the amount of competition in most markets, I think it is vital that all companies invest in building innovation competencies as a core capability. Just as most companies are really good at purchasing, or order management, or other functions, it is vital to be as capable in innovation work as it is in other functions.  Innovation can't be a distraction or an occasional discrete project, it needs to be a capacity that can be called on daily.

This means that several components are required:

  • Management engagement to support more frequent and recurring innovation activities
  •  Innovation skill development - training people to think differently, to use information more creatively, to reduce risk and uncertainty
  •  A defined innovation process - as much as possible, create a step by step approach that people can learn, master and follow, rather than every innovation project becoming a new experience
  •  Rethinking rewards, compensation and recognition - let's reward people who bring new ideas to life
  • Recognition of the time and resources required to do innovation work well

Projects within a capability

Ultimately, you are going to have many innovation projects, some of which will generate new products, or services, or even business models.  Some will be short and focused on incremental change, while others are longer and focus on more disruptive ideas.  All of these ideas need to operate under and within the umbrella of innovation competencies, and you will need to do more innovation in the future than you do now.

All of this means that you need to be good at innovation as a project, but more importantly you need to build the skills and knowledge to DO innovation more frequently and more capably, and you need to build the CULTURE of the organization to sustain and encourage innovation, and executives need to FUND and ENGAGE in innovation as both a competency and a project.

Without an existing innovation capability or competency, all innovation will struggle as a one off activity or project without the proper tools, language, structure and governance.  With these factors in place, with a well developed innovation capability or competency, it will be easier to start and complete innovation work, which will return more interesting ideas that drive more value, in less time and with less cultural resistance.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:48 AM 0 comments

Friday, August 20, 2021

The innovation and collaboration strawman

 I have friends who work for IBM and other large corporations in the Research Triangle Park, some of whom are experiencing whiplash.  After all, they've been sent to work from home, returned to the office and then sent back to work from home several times.  All before Covid struck.  Covid has only caused the process to repeat.

When they were sent home, the argument was that it did not matter where people worked and the company could save money by downsizing buildings.  When they were brought back to the office, the rationale was that hallway conversations and unexpected interactions would lead to better communication and innovation.  Some of the to-ing and fro-ing that happened is inexplicable, at least to me, but I am sure there was some "strategy" behind it.

Now, the NY Times has a recent article (sorry there may be a paywall) that suggests that working in the office, with the ever present water cooler conversations and random interactions, is not necessarily better for innovation.  The fact that this appears to be "news" suggests how little innovation must happen in the NY Times news room.  Innovation in any corporation is difficult.  It is not a question of random hallway conversations, because that's not what drives most innovation.

Narrow and brittle

The reason that most random hallway conversations don't produce innovation in a lot of corporations is because the organizations are narrow and brittle. By this I mean that most of the people you interact with represent one of two categories:  they are either working in a job or industry that is exceptionally similar to the one you are in, and therefore unlikely to introduce anything new to you, or they are likely to be working in a job or geography so different from yours that they may as well speak another language.

In the first instance, meeting with people who have similar jobs, the random interactions will always return to common challenges and issues that you've hashed out before. The range and scope of ideas and options is exceptionally limited.  In the second instance, if and when you meet people in your company from really different functions or jobs or locations (which is rare), you share so little with them, and have so little incentive to explore new opportunities, that in most cases you may as well be two different species.

The best opportunity for innovation will happen in these instances in a truly cross-functional team with people selected from different functions, industries and geographies, but the challenge is that none of these people work for the same VP, and the VPs don't have any incentive to commit good people to a cross functional project that does not benefit their team directly.

Innovation and collaboration

If Edison showed us anything, he demonstrated that intentionally mixing people with different skills from different fields, and focusing their attention on specific problems, could definitely lead to better outcomes than people working on their own.  

Edison's Menlo Park lab included people from a number of backgrounds, functions and industries, put there intentionally to interact and to bridge technologies and ideas across industry or technology boundaries.  They created hundreds of patents and dozens of ideas, sometimes creating new solutions from the ground up, and sometimes making radical improvements to existing technologies (the light bulb).

So, there are a couple of issues with the idea that collaboration and innovation aren't helpful.

First, having a bunch of unaffiliated people who do not share compensation models and do not work on the same issues randomly running into each other in  the hallways is not a recipe for innovation, it is a Brownian motion experiment.

Two, sending people who share a focus on solving specific problems (senior sponsorship and strategic direction) to work within their fields and to INTENTIONALLY cross pollinate with each other has real potential to create interesting and radically different solutions.

Key Factors

What we can see from this is that whether the innovators work in a distributed fashion, work in a hybrid fashion or all work in the office, is not the key issue.  There are a couple of factors that will determine if and when collaboration and interaction can add to an organization's innovation capacity:

  • Strategy - Why are the interactions valuable?  Most interactions that cross business functions, geographies or technologies will be transformative or disruptive, so they need a helping hand from the top. 

What problems or opportunities do you hope to solve?  Edison did not leave this to chance.

  •  Intentionality - Which people with which experiences or knowledge should interact?  Rather than random interactions, create interactions and collaborations that have an intent.  Mix the technologists from several fields together if there is a potential for a new opportunity, or mix technologists and marketers together but do so intentionally.
  • Shared goals - if the people running into each other, on purpose or accidentally, have shared goals, shared compensation models, they are much more likely to explore opportunities that mix my peanut butter and your chocolate, to use an old saying.
  •  Openness - this only works if the whole idea of collaboration and cross pollination is exposed and open to everyone, and no one needs or wants to claim sole credit for an idea.  If the expectations aren't established, then all the interaction will lead to a number of separate projects, with each group or team declaring their version of the idea the best.

  • Variety - Edison mixed people from radically (at the time) different industries and technologies, seeking to bridge capabilities from one industry or technology to another.  The best innovation teams are often heterogeneous, and it is in their diversity (diversity of age, race, experience, industries, functions, technologies) that creates real value.

Random collisions or carefully considered interactions?

So, the choice is yours.  Whether your teams work from home or the office, you can send them into a billiard ball's path of random collisions with people they don't quite know and don't quite understand, who don't share common goals and who want to claim the glory of any idea for themselves.

Or, you can plan their interactions with strategy in mind, with intention, building to specific goals and outcomes, with a shared context.  

The latter is far more likely to create interesting outcomes, but requires a lot more engagement from senior executives and change management.  So, too often we'll end up with the random collisions which appears to be a solution, but is simply window dressing, or an argument to bring everyone back to the office.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:10 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

What innovation leaders share with military leaders

I'm a fan of military history, and it is always striking to me to see how much new product development and innovation can learn from the military and vice versa.  When we look at the military, we often don't think of innovation, or perhaps we think of the wrong kinds of innovation, like super expensive hammers or weapons systems that sound great but don't work.  The military is rich in innovation, but most of that innovation flows from the middle and lower ranks.  Generals, like executives, for the most part become conservative as they climb the ladder.

The reason we know of people like Napolean, or Grant, or Patton, is because they were innovators who broke the mold.  They were generals who used their insight and innovative tactics to win.  Most innovation (like up-armored Humvees) were the brain child of the soldier in the fight, and in many cases these innovations were discouraged or even blocked by higher ups.  There are plenty of examples, from the breech loading rifle (rejected by the British during the Revolutionary War), the Gatling Gun (rejected by the War Department during the Civil War), funding for heavier than air vehicles (directed to Langley rather than to Wright), the development of the F-15 - just read the books about Boyd

Let's examine what happens to many generals and why that is similar to innovation leaders.

Mental models and organizational structures that restrict innovation

What do we think limits military generals from innovation or new tactics?

 - Drawing the wrong lessons from previous conflicts (preparing for trench warfare and static positions while the Germans develop the Blitzkrieg)

 - Poor intelligence from the front, or not willing to hear the truth about what's happening, or the truth is filtered as it works its way to the top

 - Rapid advances in military hardware and technology that the generals did not understand and could not adapt to

 - Fighting the "last war" - using strategy and tactics that might have been more effective in a former confrontation that were outdated and easily overcome in this war.

 - Failure to act decisively when the opportunities presented themselves

 - Lack of willingness or understanding to promote people who understand what's happening and to place them in leadership positions

 - A deep belief in the power of one's own army to defeat an opponent - perhaps we could call this institutional arrogance

So much for the history lesson - what's this got to do with leading innovation?

What we can learn from these examples

There are a number of correlations between military commanders and the people who will lead innovation programs and initiatives in corporations.  

First, both operate within a highly regimented structure, with a significant amount of top down control  This means that they will either adhere to the existing structures and ways of work, or, through rapid learning, will seek to adapt to the situation.

Second, both the military and large organizations are relatively slow to act, but once they get moving with enough energy and momentum can be hard to stop.  Inertia is a big problem, as is the willingness to believe that the skills and capabilities that won the last conflict or solved the last problem are still relevant.

Third, most military leaders and corporate executives are students of history, but don't spend enough time looking into and preparing for the future.  Knowing enough history to avoid repeating it is valuable, but understanding and assessing future scenarios to prepare to win the next way is also vital.

Fourth, technologies, skills and knowledge are moving faster and the world is a very different place than it was when these leaders (military or corporate) were coming up.  This means they either need to be rapid, constantly engaged learners or willing to put people in charge who have been closer to the action more recently.

Fifth, on occasion both types of leaders will need to take significant risks in order to win  Steve Jobs returned to Apple and cut 90% of the product line  Hernando De Soto burned his boats on arriving in the New World.  Patton decided that he could drive the Germans out of France through rapid attacks and denying the Germans fuel.  

Sixth, the speed and pace of change needs should cause leaders from both organizations to constantly reassess just how prepared they are, and where the next threat will come from.  Disruptions always come from unexpected places and from unexpected sources.

Finally, being able to shift through the news and the noise, and being willing to hear both the good news and the not so good news.  Too often, executives and military leaders don't want to hear the "bad news" and that leads them to double down on poor strategies.  We've got to have better intel, and we've got to be able to digest it and understand what it means more effectively.

How do innovation leaders help their teams and lead from the front?

  1. Get unfiltered insights from customers and the market. Don't accept data that has been filtered, go to the source or have trusted subordinates get the unfiltered data, feedback and needs from the market.
  2. Train your staff on innovation methods, tools and processes.  Make sure they are able to execute on the work you will ask them to do.  They should be as adept at innovation as they are at any other task or job.
  3. Create a meaningful strategy of which innovation is a core component, but not the only component.  Demonstrate and communicate what you want from innovation and how you'll measure success.
  4. Put the right people in charge of innovation work.  Not the "right people" who are good at your day to day operations, but the people who take risks, demand better execution and have a vision for the future.
  5. Lead from the front.  You don't have to "do" innovation, but you need to be engaged in the strategy, supporting the work, asking questions, providing the resources and cheering on the team.  If you are too far from the front lines, you cannot know what is happening, and your teams cannot feel your presence, and may become concerned that you do not support their work.
  6. Communicate.  Then communicate some more.  Be specific about what you want, when you want it and communicate your goals, your support for innovation and the work of the team.  Be sure your actions and investments say the same things as your emails and presentations. 
  7. Be a bit humble. Even if you are the best in your industry, expect that disruptive forces are going to attack you.  Shift from the "know it all" mentality to the "learn it all" mentality.

Of course, one thing that corporate innovation leaders could learn from their military counterparts is funding.  The military has to re-up each year, and justify huge investments in people, in training and in equipment.  In the corporate world, where annual planning and budgeting is also a reality, we need to be better at defining the rationale for innovation and obtaining the funds necessary to implement innovation skills and complete innovation projects.


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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:40 AM 0 comments

Friday, August 13, 2021

The appropriate innovation speed: slow, then fast

As a writer, you are at risk of "jumping the shark" when you start quoting your own material.  However, I could not help going back into my archives to dredge up a post I wrote almost ten years ago, which was entitled Innovation Fast and Slow.  At the time I was writing this post, I was concerned that too many companies were under too much pressure to speed up their innovation activities and generate some interesting new ideas.  Nothing wrong with speed if preparation comes along with it.  Otherwise, speed can kill an innovative idea.

The problem with that speeding up concept was that most companies were starting from zero.  This meant that they had few capabilities, few people dedicated to innovation and few good ideas.  Speeding up a capacity that is basically a dry well can only lead to more poorly considered ideas that won't have an impact.  You cannot speed up what does not exist.  As Newton noted, objects at rest will stay at rest.

When is it appropriate to "go fast"

Today, ten years on, there is more and more talk about rapid innovation, innovation sprints and so on.  The focus is still on speed, because of the three factors I wrote about in my last post - people, tools and time - time is the most precious resource.  And, most executives operate and are judged on very short time periods - quarters at best - so to have an impact, ideas must get to market and prove their value quickly.  Because time is limited and precious, executives want to speed up innovation work, and in doing so we often shortchange the work and are disappointed in the results.

There is no problem with an innovation sprint, or rapid innovation generally, IFF (and for those of you that don't know the nomenclature, IFF stands for if and only if) you 1) have real capacity for innovation in terms of tools, processes and people, 2) you have good insight into customer needs or emerging opportunities and 3) you have a budget.  If you have all three of these factors in place, please, by all means, sprint away.  If you lack any of them, or more likely all of them, going fast will simply lead to a faster crash.

Again, I am NOT saying that speed is dangerous or unnecessary, only that most organizations have artificial reinforcement for speed - because time is a valuable commodity, people have other jobs and the company is evaluated on a quarterly basis - and before you can be fast at innovation, you have to be good at innovation.

Being good at innovation before being fast

Being good at innovation requires the same investment in people, in processes and in culture as does speeding up any other business process.  If you want to speed up procurement, for example, you'll refine your requisition process, cut time from evaluating vendors, work only with the most responsive vendors, train your procurement staff to process purchase orders more effectively, and so on.

But hopefully you can see the fallacy here.  Corporations have people and processes that have been doing procurement work for years.  In other words, they are already pretty good at doing the work, so speeding it up isn't a large lift.  If you don't have experienced innovators, if you aren't familiar with the tools and methods that support innovation, going fast will inevitably fail.

Here's what you need to "go fast" at innovation:

  •  A clearly scoped opportunity or problem with reasonably clear expectations for an outcome
  •  People who have the time and the skills to do innovation well
  •  A method or process that people can follow to touch all the bases and that ensures that the ideas or products recommended can be validated in the market and defended to executives
  • A budget to do this work
  •  An approval process to get ideas from the "front end" to product or service development teams who will actually bring them to life

If you lack any of these, your innovation work will be less than satisfactory.

When to go slow

Finally, no matter how fast you want to go with innovation, no matter how much you are willing to train the team or build the process, you should ALWAYS go slow at the beginning of an innovation activity.

The worst thing you can do is to start with a poorly identified opportunity or problem, or fail to fully understand the scope (incremental or disruptive) or type (product, service, business model) of innovation that is expected.  The second worst thing you can to is to start an innovation activity without understanding customer wants and needs, or what emerging trends or markets are about to unfold.

If you have a good problem or opportunity definition and are reasonably confident of customer wants and needs, your ability to "go fast" is greatly enhanced.  Without this information, which requires some iteration and a slow start, you will constantly iterate back to the beginning to refine your project, or will advance with a lack of data that will cause you to miss the mark in the end.

The wrap up

So, there's a logic tree that ends this post.

  1. 1. You can go fast in an innovation activity if you
    1. Carefully scope the activity and gather important customer insight and
    2. Have a well defined innovation process and people who are good at innovation and
    3. Provide time for the team to work on innovation activities and
    4. Have a budget for the work and
    5. Have a way to transition ideas from the front end into development
If you don't have a good innovation workflow or process, don't understand innovation work or tools, don't have a budget or lack good transition from the front end activities into development, you can of course "go fast" at innovation.  Your team or project is exceptionally likely to fail.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:47 AM 0 comments