Friday, February 23, 2007

The Permission Slip

Do you remember high school? There was that magical time when everyone else was in class and you were still wandering the halls. You had this freedom due to a small slip of paper from someone in authority - you had a permission slip - which gave you the right to get out of class and do something different.

As I work with innovators in a number of firms, I am struck by the fact that many of them are still searching for their permission slip. They need some permission to slip the corporate bonds and begin to create something new. They need a permission slip to try some ideas that aren't the ones that have typically been tried before. They need a permission slip to work with people from other business units or perhaps even other firms. They need a permission slip to fail ocassionally, since innovation requires stretching the capabilities of the firm.

So, if many innovators are struggling to get a permission slip, where should they turn? What rationale do they use to get the permission slip? In many firms, the executive teams are slowing gaining an understanding of the importance of innovation, especially for organic growth and differentiation. However, understanding the importance and giving permission to people who want to innovate are two completely different things. Rather than wait for the permission to innovate, innovators need to define their plans and actively advocate for their plan to the executive team. Rather than wait for permission, the innovator needs to actively seek permission. In a worst case scenario, the innovator may need to ask for foregiveness, rather than permission.

We've trained our organizations to wait for the green light. We expect in most cases clear communication from on high to direct us and our teams. In any new initiative, people will ask - who gave you the authority? What is your budget? What they are really asking is - do you have the permission to do this? If not, don't count on me to participate.

As I noted above, if you are an innovator, you need special permission. Permission to start an innovation initiative simply isn't enough. You need permission to try some new things, work on ideas that have not been examined before. You need permission to fail as well. If your permission slip allows only one failure, then you'll never truly innovate.

My advice? Stop waiting for the executive team to give you permission. Draw up your plan and demand they act on the clear need to innovate. When you ask, be sure to ask for a broad mandate that allows your team to explore the many different possibilities and provides a reasonable time frame for success.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:48 AM

27 Comments:

Blogger Sanjay Dalal said...

Good read Jeffrey.

I have experienced the "Permission Slip" impasse myself several times in my careers as a product manager and product director in Silicon Valley companies. I have come to believe that product manager needs to be an entrepreneuer both inside and outside the company - both an intrapreneur and the classic entrepreneur.

As companies get bigger, so does the red tape and corporate structure needed to create new innovations. If companies do not establish "processes" to drive innovation, innovation becomes cyclical and at times ad-hoc. In such an environment, the product managers have to strive to become an intrapreneur - someone who has a lot of patience, drive, vision, understanding of the company culture and politics, and an innate ability to create strong executive allies within the company, network, collaborate, and become a consensus builder. Some corporations create a separate Program Management office to spare the product manager from all the "permission slips". However, even when there is Program Management, the product manager must still champion the new innovations and vision in order to be successful in the long term.

Top Innovators such as 3M, GE, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Google, Apple, Yahoo! (to name a few) have processes in place to stimulate new products and innovations. However, at times even the best of companies need better processes to create sustainable innovations.

For instance, in Top Ten Creative Leadership Traits I talk about the ten best characteristics needed to create new innovations. In Six Ways to Find Innovation, there are insights on how to create new innovations; finally, how can a company unblock creativity and innovation?

In short, "The Permission Slip" syndrome exists at most companies, and I believe the product manager should be creative in not only creating new products, but in also the process that creates new innovations.

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