Monday, February 25, 2008

Innovation learning curve

In any new task, a person or team faces a "learning curve". Simply defined, the learning curve is the culmination of experience, mistakes, lessons learned and knowledge that one gains when doing a specific function or task. Inevitably, one starts any task as a beginner and masters the task over time, by doing it again and again.

How does a batter become a .300 hitter in baseball? By taking batting practice, and refining his swing over countless practice sessions. How does a person gain mastery over a piece of machinery like a drill press? By training on the press and working with it for years. Every function, everything we do experiences a learning curve. Which is why it is a bit of a conundrum when people are asked to demonstrate mastery of innovation when it's not done repeatedly.

Talk about a learning curve - innovation means creating new products or services in an environment that may not be fully aligned to the task, with people who often have to invent the process. Since innovation is rarely repeated, the models and processes are seldom reusable, so the innovators are constantly reinventing the process. Each team of innovators faces a learning curve, and most never achieve mastery, much less sustainable competence, and can't pass on their learning to other people.

Ever wonder why innovation seems so "hard"? Well, there's never the ability to "master" the innovation process, and in most cases there isn't even a process. A good analogy would be to ask a purchasing agent to use a different system and process every time they acquired a product or service, and to constantly switch the product or service they were acquiring. How could such a person ever master the situation and become proficient? Now, we'd never ask purchasing to constantly switch tools and processes, but most firms have no compunction whatsoever about switching innovation processes and teams, but expecting excellent results.

Innovation is a capability, a process and a skill that demands a learning curve. If your firm desires a capable, engaged innovation process, then it needs to allow the individuals who innovate to gain the competence and mastery of the process. This means that they need to work to a consistent process, and innovate over time using different ideas as drivers. It will mean they will fail, and incorporate that learning. If the innovation teams can't work to achieve innovation competency and mastery, then everyone faces a steep learning curve with unrealistic expectations.

In this case, hope is not a strategy. Innovation requires a consistent process and demands a level of competence just like any other process.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:32 AM


Anonymous Justin M. Kolenc (Ribbonfarm Editor) said...

This is a great point you have made here. I think that you are essentially referring to the need of business to maintain a culture of innovation rather than to experience it in isolated, unrepeatable pockets.

An associate of mine named Venkatesh Rao, who writes the blog Ribbonfarm, has published an article that takes a look at this business of "innovation culture" from the perspective of a successful Indian business, TaTa:

"The House of Tata and Indian Innovation"

4:16 AM  
OpenID jamestodhunter said...

Innovation learning is broader than just maintaining a culture of innovation. Whether they recognize it or not, every organization has an innovation culture; every organization has an innovation process. The culture may not be conducive to high-performance innovation. The process may be ad hoc and may not leverage repeatable skills. The point is that concious effort is needed to make the culture and processes of innovation in an organization productive and sustainable.

Culture shaping is a part of the answer. But at ground level, there are basic innovation practices than can help produce higher value results in a more reliable manner that the drunkard walk that many organizations traverse.

To build these skills, the practice of innovation must be practiced continuously. Of course, we aren't always presented with the need to innovate big. This is why innovation thinking for small and incremental change is also important. This is the low-risk training arena where practitioners can learn and hone their innovation skills.

10:22 AM  
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