Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Axes of Innovation

No, not axes to chop things down, although in this market it seems like many innovation programs are getting chopped. Axes as in more than one axis, like in geometry. I want to talk today about how we get our innovation axes exactly backwards in most cases.

Think of innovation as bounded by two axes - one axis being the amount of freedom we allow people to have when they generate ideas, and the other being the amount of freedom we provide when considering, managing and commercializing ideas. Although I'll be happy to argue that this is actually a multi-dimensional problem, we'll use this simple x-y thinking for now to illustrate a problem with innovation.

In most firms, there is an unspoken barrier to the kinds and types of ideas that people can generate. Most ideas that are generated are very safe, incremental ideas that don't threaten the status quo, don't disrupt and don't risk very much. Whether this is an imposed barrier or a perceived barrier remains to be seen. So, on the "Y" axis in most firms today there is relatively little freedom for exploration. On the "X" access - how we manage, evaluate and commercialize ideas, there is a great degree of freedom, since few firms have a defined process for innovation and moving ideas into a new product or service development stream. This may seem appropriate, but is in fact a difficulty since every idea and its consideration becomes one of a kind.

In a perfect world, these axes would be bounded very differently. For example, in a very innovative company, the "Y" axis would be unbound. Create any idea of any type that you care to. We, in fact, demand your best, your most disruptive ideas. Anyone generating "safe" incremental ideas will be barely accepted. On the other hand, the "X" axis, which represents how ideas are evaluated and commercialized, would be bound. There would be a defined process for capturing, managing and evaluating ideas, rather than an undefined mess or a free-for-all.

So, in the vast majority of firms, we have exactly the worst configuration of these two axes - bounded ideation and unbounded (really undefined) processes. What would it take to shift to an unbounded ideation and a bounded (defined) process? Investment in the process, consistency and commitment to follow the process and a dramatic reduction in perceived risk of generating disruptive ideas.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM


Anonymous Danny McCall said...

I like your x/y framing Mr. Phillips! It seems we may be kindred spirits. You have prior referred to one of my innovation-related sites: www.pollentransport.com You may be interested in another: www.creativehive.com The latter appears to be quite aligned with your thinking (at least, to me). keep up the good work! Danny

10:35 AM  
Blogger Braden Kelley said...

Hello Jeffrey,

I would say that there two completely different types of imposed ideation constraints:

Situation #1 - Very big organizations that tend to say things like "Bring us the next billion dollar business.".

Situation #2 - Other organizations shoot the revolutionaries and create an unspoken constraint which causes people to only submit incremental improvements while letting their revolutionary ideas wither on the vine (if they don't leave and form a startup around the idea).

The real organizational challenge is to create a culture that inspires to people to submit a complete spectrum of ideas.

Is your organization up to the challenge?


10:55 AM  
Blogger Prashanth Bhat said...

Lets assume any organization will not go to disruptive extent taking risks of change and innovation, which is true by the way. i think it will take a third axis which let us call z axis, which are market forces. The market forces creates the dimension where there is no option but to jump on the innovation wagon to stay competitive and stay innovative in the market.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Mary Adams said...

Great description Jeffrey! Unfortunately, the process is the easier part. The ideation requires the creation of an ecosystem with the right competencies, culture, connections and management. These intangibles need to be identified and managed deliberately, something few management teams have learned to do.

12:34 PM  
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10:33 AM  
Blogger felicity said...

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7:42 PM  
Blogger Stephen Davies said...

I like the Axes of Innovation geometric orientation and can see many possible other dimensions that could be extended...for example, operational excellence, value propositions/offers, social learning, resource management, management practices/governance, and adaptive capability (the innovation management function you name). There's a lot to explore here in a rich conversation.

11:57 AM  

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