Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The politics of innovation

You may be wondering what "politics" and innovation have in common. I was thinking that innovation in many firms is a proof of the "tragedy of the commons" concept in economics - but no one wants to read a blog post about economics, and much of the challenge of innovation is about beauracracy and culture, not economics.

Wikipedia quotes Aristotle as saying that "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it". Likewise, innovation, while "important" to many different groups and functions within an organization, seems to suffer from a lack of attention and focus.

Lately, I've spent a fair amount of time working with firms to help create innovation programs and central innovation teams. This work inevitably meets with concern from other existing teams and initiatives. These groups believe that either

  1. "Everyone" should participate in innovation or
  2. Innovation is already a responsibility of one or several teams or
  3. Innovation can't be managed at all
What happens is that while everyone claims to think innovation is important, and part of their charter and responsibility, it rarely gets done. That's because the urgent (meeting quota, achieving the quarterly numbers, etc) always takes precedence over the investment that innovation demands. Thus, the innovation tragedy of the commons - everyone claims to think innovation is important and that they are busily working on it, when in fact no one does.

This problem alone is enough to establish a central innovation team that is managed and measured on innovation results. I'd rather place all my eggs in one basket, and watch that basket very closely, than hope that a broad cross-section of the organization is going to spend time on something they don't believe is urgent.

This is not to say that innovation should be "owned" by any one group within the organization. Clearly, there are teams, initiatives and product or service groups throughout any organization that are capable of innovation and that should be innovating. But if there's not a team that's consistently measured on innovation, little innovation will get done.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:18 PM

47 Comments:

Blogger Szymon said...

Hello,

In general I agree with you, but I have one concern that might be of an importance to the situation you've described. The fact that a complex system (like an "old" company) is not willing to innovate is not disputable. There are many reasons, one of them being the fact, that many times the innovation would actually be dangerous to the system itself. Innovative way of proceeding could make part of the system redundant or at least cause a significant change. Now what is proposed here is to make a part of the system (or a totally new subsystem) responsible for managing innovation. This has two threats. First is that this new subsystem might very soon be in conflict with the rest of the system as it would try to push changes not welcomed by the rest. In that scenario an innovation-subsystem is rewarded for innovating (changing) while the rest is rewarded for efficiency, i.e. not changing. Secondly if this subsystem grows and becomes itself a complex system a threat exists that it would do everything but not innovation. Why? Because innovation would become disruptive to this "grown" and "established" system. One of the best examples is in the EU where they try to push innovations by means of publicly-funded, government-supervised programs and projects. The visible effect is that they are producing tons and tons of analysis, reports, conferences and similar, but very little true innovation that can be seen comes out of this system. The system became so complex that it is not able to process any actual innovation. This is of course an exaggeration, but in smaller scale the threat exists.

The bottom line is that introducing and innovation-responsible subsystem (team) would not work without changing the mindset of the rest of the organization. This change in mindset must be strongly backed by the appropriate changes in the system in such a way, that the whole organization would be rewarded when a change from innovation comes, not punished.

BR, Szymon

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