Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Seventeen

The room was quiet and expectant, like a bunch of nervous new fathers waiting for the nurse to announce the birth of a new baby. They were also tired, distracted and thinking about the issues and challenges that had been raised during the day, and eager for the day to end so they could return to their email and phone calls. All that stood in the way of that was me.

I felt it was important to establish my bona fides, so I started with a brief overview of the firms we had worked with, especially the Fortune 500 types that I knew most would readily recognize. As I walked through some different case studies and the work we'd done and successes we'd had, I could see several of the attendees paying more attention.

Then, I threw them a curve ball. I asked them for a definition of innovation. A few seemed curious, the rest a bit puzzled. One gentleman near the back of the room volunteered "Something new or different".

I agreed. "Innovation is usually something new or different. Are there other definitions or descriptions you'd offer?"

Another offered "Generating ideas about new products".

"Yes" I said "That is also part of a definition about innovation".

There were several other statements or partial definitions of innovation.

"Are you satisfied with the definitions we generated? If it's this difficult or uncertain for the management team, how can Accipiter be successful at innovation if we can't clearly define what it is?"

I continued.

"We define innovation as 'people putting ideas into valuable action'. Note what this says. People - that is, you and your employees, generating ideas and converting those ideas into new products and services. It's not enough to be 'creative' - to just generate ideas. Those ideas have to be evaluated and prioritized and implemented for the benefit of your customers or for Accipiter."

Some more heads were nodding, some seemed even more skeptical.

"We work with management teams to create clarity about your purpose, goals and intent around innovation" I said "because it's one of the most important functions in your business, yet poorly defined and very risky, since it introduces change and risk. Without clear communications and a well-defined goal, most of your employees can't or won't work on innovation effectively."

Now the fish were beginning to rise to the bait.

"OK, I understand your perspective on the definition" a woman near the front said. "How do we at Accipiter create a definition that helps the employee population innovate, and communicate to them the issues and challenges that we believe are important? We have a suggestion box and we do receive ideas, but most of them are fairly useless and don't align to our needs or goals."

Well, she'd done it. Waved the red flag at the bull. Talked about an undirected suggestion box as if that was the beginning and end of an innovation program.

"That's great insight--I'm sorry I don't know your name."

"Teresa Smith"

"Teresa, your comment is on the mark and is indicative of what we see in many firms. Often we as management teams ask our employees for their ideas - which they are more than happy to provide. However, we don't ask for ideas in specific areas where we as the management team need ideas most desparately, and we often aren't clear about where we need their ideas the most. A definition of innovation can help, but so can using what we call directed ideation. Rather than an open suggestion box, we advise, and our clients can attest to this, that a directed ideation - idea campaigns where you ask for ideas to solve a specific problem or address a specific challenge, are much more effective. You know the most common sound right after an idea is submitted to an open suggestion box?"

"No"

"Sounds a lot like a shredder" Got some laughs. "The reason is that with an open suggestion box anyone can submit any idea, and they will. But when your team looks at those ideas, it doesn't usually find much of value, since you haven't provided guidance as to which ideas are most important to you."

More heads were nodding, but I was losing valuable time. 15 minutes into a 45 minute pitch and I hadn't even talked about the commitments the management team would need to make.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:26 AM

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