After working with a number of companies on innovation initiatives and projects, I've learned a lot about the needs for innovation and how to structure an innovation program or project. If your firm is contemplating a new innovation effort, consider these concepts and how they might shape your initiatives and goals.
- The need for big, quick results versus the existing procedures and machinery. It's rare that we hear a firm say "We need a big new idea and we're willing to develop it and nurture it over a reasonable period of time". No, usually what most firms demand is a really big idea they can implement quickly - as if the "low hanging" fruit hasn't already been picked. The fallacy of this argument is two fold: unless the firm is in truly dire circumstances, any big idea will present risks to some part of the business and will face opposition, so it won't move quickly. And, even if the idea didn't face opposition, the number of "game changing" ideas is limited and may take some time to identify. You want quick ideas? No problem. You want big ideas? Ok, but it may take a little while. You want big ideas that can be implemented quickly? Much more difficult.
- Innovation can't change your product development lifecycle unless you focus on that first. Let's assume we were lucky and created a big new idea that will have a lot of impact on the market. The idea has been evaluated and approved. We've only cleared the first hurdle. In most firms the product development lifecycle is just beginning, and can take anywhere from several months to several years. Unless you've streamlined your product development timeframe or can develop the idea outside your traditional product development process, there's still a "long pole" in the tent.
- People have to actively participate. Ideas don't generate themselves, and they certainly can't evaluate or test themselves. When we reach the stage where computers can generate and evaluate the ideas for us, and then prototype them and test them as well, then we can all get back to doing our "real jobs". Until those dreams are realized, people need to be actively engaged in all facets of the innovation process. Currently, the expectation seems to be that we'll identify a few people to participate in a part-time effort for a month or two, unless something more important or pressing shows up. How can innovation ever be more pressing than an immediate customer requirement or sales issue? We've already demonstrated that ideas take time to nurture and grow, so very few ideas will have immediate impact. Innovation is always important but rarely urgent, so the staffing of an innovation effort always suffers.
- Think like a farmer, act like a hunter. Farmers place the seeds in the ground and groom the soil, patiently waiting for the crop to bear fruit. They understand the cycles and the seasons. They realize a corn crop will take six months to grow, and in the off season they till the soil to prepare the next crop. Hunters are opportunists. They spot the game and shot what's in front of them, when it's available. Innovators need to groom their cultures and grow their ideas like farmers and implement those ideas when the opportunities are right like hunters. Without the farming, there's no ready stock of ideas in the pipeline. Without the hunter, there's no recognition of the opportunity.
When you embark on an innovation effort, consider these concepts when you are working with an innovation consultant. Set your expectations effectively and ensure that your management team understands the timeframes and commitments necessary to make innovation successful.