Friday, September 19, 2008

One Critical Innovation skill

We frequently hear some people (and by extension some firms) say that "they aren't innovative". Yet innovators, and successful innovative companies, come in all shapes and sizes, are found in every industry and geography. When your firm decides to become more innovative, there's only one really important criteria for the innovation manager or leader - the willingness, if not the desire, to do things differently.

As Hamlet would say - there's the rub. For the last decade we've been taught to create standardized processes and follow them closely, eliminating any variability. Now, we're asked to innovate, which requires change and risk and uncertainty. This conflicts with all we've been taught and all that's been reinforced over the last few years. What are the alternatives?

Well, you can anoint an innovation lead who accepts and reinforces the Six Sigma way of thinking. New ideas are fine, as long as they adhere to certain important principles. No new or risky methods or approaches. Financial analysis of all ideas as quickly as possible. Little divergent thinking. No incorporation of outside perspectives. In other words, we'll manage innovation the way we manage everything else.

Or, you can find someone to manage your innovation process who encourages his or her team to think differently, to intentionally violate or break the accepted norms, to consider the "what-ifs" that the rest of the organization ignores or takes for granted. Yes, it is much more difficult to manage in this style in most organizations, but ultimately the success or failure of an innovation effort is based on how it is managed and framed.

I heard a CEO speak recently about how disappointed he was that all of the "big" ideas in his organization kept becoming "small" ideas. That happened when a big or really disruptive or interesting idea came into contact with the existing norms, perspectives and expectations, and gradually the idea was confined, constrained and chipped away at until it was "tamed" by the culture. What had been a great, transformative possibility became a safe, easily dismissed idea.

We all know that Einstein suggested that insanity was doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. It seems that's what most organizations insist on when it comes to innovation - let's manage a very different process in the same way, using the same thinking and same people - to try to drive some very different outcomes. And then they wonder why all the ideas seem so trivial.

Innovation is not simply a matter of thinking differently - it's a matter of managing differently. In fact, the thinking part is the easy part. It's the change in how we manage that's difficult and ultimately divides successful firms from the rest.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:24 AM


Anonymous Lilly Haines-Gadd said...

Surely how you innovate is dependent on the challenges you face? Sometimes, the best way to change is to improve within the existing paradigm. Bringing in totally new and radical changes when they aren't appropriate or necessary can be as damaging as refusing to make those changes when they're needed.

When people think about innovation, I think they often don't recognise that there are (at least) three factors to consider - the individual, the organisation and the problem at hand. Understanding the needs of all three - and how to manage them flexibly - is the mark of successful innovation, in my opinion.

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