Monday, December 11, 2006

"You can't manage innovation"

I was reading Fast Company or Business 2.0 recently and came across this statement from an "expert" who went on to explain that innovation can't be put into a process or managed like a business process. If we assume that this statement is true, then innovation is difficult, costly and episodic at best, done mostly by wild-haired people in lab coats somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

But, just for fun, let's break down the arguments and see if we can determine if this statement is true, or if it might be an overreach.

Some will argue that you "can't manage innovation" because you'll limit creativity. Well, all innovation starts with some creative thought, no doubt. I don't advocate placing hard limits on creative thought, but at some point a good idea or creative thought needs to be converted into something we can do or use. Otherwise it is simply daydreaming. We need to distinguish between formalizing a process that manages an idea once it is created and placing limits on what or how people think - or how they create new ideas.

Others will argue that you "can't manage innovation" because it really does not lend itself to process management the way a more transactional process (like purchasing for instance) does. While I will agree that there are nuances between a purely transactional process and what happens in innovation, at some point we can decide that an idea is valuable and should be managed and evaluated. If we have ideas but don't have some avenues for consideration, some rules or metrics for evaluation, and some defined process, then each idea will be considered, managed and evaluated based on whatever criteria are at hand. Most businesses shudder to think of inconsistency in any process - why should innovation be different?

Others will argue that managing innovation is futile or difficult because innovation is not a "hard" science or process. It's almost like Brownian motion - if we observe it too closely, we by definition have influenced it somehow. Why do we think that innovation and idea management should be done by some other, wall-off process that does not receive close attention and scrutiny? If innovation is going to be one of the engines of organic growth, why wouldn't we want to pay close attention to what is happening and who is doing it?

Finally, others will argue that we can't manage innovation because it is cross-functional and many people are involved. It can be simply too complex to manage effectively. There are too many bureaucractic obstacles and cultural issues. OK, so we can put a man on the moon and split the atom but we can't figure out how to effectively organize ourselves to innovative repeatedly?

Let's face it - you can manage ideas and you can manage innovation. After all, once the idea is created, everything else is execution - managing, evaluating and producing a new product or service. Creative types may not like that, but then every creative agency I've ever worked with had three or four creative directors who generated the ideas and forty or fifty people to make sure the ideas can be executed. People who believe that you "can't manage innovation" are either guarding their turf from unwanted process and scrutiny or are unwilling to view the evidence. It is possible - and should be expected - that we can manage innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:18 AM

36 Comments:

Anonymous Ralph Poole said...

Innovation can be managed because much of it involves discrete tasks that must be executed to take an idea to revenue. Creative problem solving can be encouraged and incented; companies can share the gain created by ideas with commercial value; but, to take an idea to a product or service that has an on-going revenue stream requires leadership, decisions, and trade-offs; all of which are the domain of management.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Managing is about judging and making decisions. But innovation is all knowledge updating. That is, putting stuff together (conceptually), which the world has never seen before - unless you are simply seeking innovation solutions that are significantly within the "visual range" (incremental innovation). I would certainly agree that you can knowledge lead or facilitate the knowledge update process but you can't manage it. All you'll be doing is making decisions about what you don't yet know. In other words managing innovation will through unmanagable stuff out the window. And that is stuff that great innovations are made out of. There is a reason why about 97% of product innovations fail.

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