Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The burning platform for innovation

Given all the bad news in the economy and the natural inclination to pull in the forces and cut costs, most businesses are having a difficult time doing anything from an innovation perspective right now. There are simply too many other factors in the marketplace that are commanding attention - the financial industry crisis, the possibility of changes in healthcare, the economic slowdown, cap and trade legislation, and the fact that things generally slow down in the summer anyway. All of these factors and more combine to put innovation on the back burner even at the most innovative of companies.

So, if your team wants to get something started, and you are fighting all of these factors in order to get time and attention, what can you do to get started? Create a burning platform for results.

This concept is really stolen from sales. A good salesperson knows that even if a prospect has money, and the solution is a good one for the buyer and the solution meets the needs of the buyer, the buyer often won't purchase unless there is another factor that makes the purchase URGENT. After all, people don't jump off of perfectly good platforms until they absolutely have to. That's why a burning platform is so important.

How do you create a burning platform from an innovation perspective? I'm glad you asked. There are a couple of approaches you can take. Note that none of these will necessarily create a innovation program or capability, but they will allow you to get something started, and perhaps that will light the flame for innovation in your business.

Create an innovation contest
Within your organization, identify one or two important opportunities or challenges and ask people to submit ideas to solve these challenges or opportunities. In this environment, certain challenges may be more acceptable than others. Those focused on cutting costs, or doing more with less. Be sure to appoint one or several winners and provide an award. With this approach, you've introduced the concept of a "campaign" and demonstrated the value of gathering ideas from the workforce. You can also extend this opportunity to customers as well.

Conduct a scenario planning workshop
Yes, I know, everybody is very busy, but even the most busy individuals need to get a grip on what the market looks like one, two or three years out. A short, focused workshop that looks at trends and competitors in the marketplace, and possible changes may identify new opportunities. Given the tremendous amount of change that may occur (health care, cap and trade, financial re-regulation) it makes sense to try to create alternative scenarios and get ahead of the change, rather than simply waiting for it to happen and then react to it. By then it will be too late.

Put a stake in the ground
This one is a little easier if you are the CEO or head up a line of business, but sometimes a deadline is worth more than anything else. Simply demanding an innovative new product or service nine months from today will force people to think differently and get started right now. While there are significant pressures on most businesses, there are also a significant amount of under-utilized and unemployed talent in the marketplace which can be directed to work on your new ideas.

Run a brainstorming session
This slowdown won't last forever, and as the economy turns more positive there will be people who want new products and services. Running a brainstorm or idea generation process now, in anticipation of the economy getting stronger, will provide you with the new product and service ideas that you can release then. Generating ideas and slowly developing them over time is much more effective in the long run than trying to do something quickly (see above), but either of these approaches can work, depending on the organization and the situation.

Identify important emerging needs
As the economy changes, and as legislation changes, there will be opportunities for new products and services. By the end of 2009 it is likely we'll see changes in how health care is delivered, financial re-regulation and an upswing in the economy. What opportunities do these factors create, and what existing products and services do they destroy? Knowing that, or at least having these insights will position you to take advantage as the opportunities unfold. Who is tracking trends in your organization?

These are a few ideas for getting a small innovation activity off the ground in this economy. At the worst, you could apply innovation skills and tools to cost cutting or operational excellence. But in that regard, rather than trying to save a few dollars or few minutes in a transaction or process, seek to find ways to eliminate the transaction or the process all together.

Innovation, more than any other function, needs a burning platform to kickstart it in most organizations. How can you create a burning platform in this economy?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:01 AM

8 Comments:

Anonymous Car Reviews said...

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2:34 AM  
Blogger Canada-US MBA said...

I think your suggestions are great ways to identify opportunities, but they will not create a burning platform.
A burning platform is used to raise a sense of urgency in a company. A company that continually incrementally innovates to lower and lower returns, needs to see the urgency that they must change behavior to meet aggressive growth targets.

To outsiders, it is easy to see what is happening. People on the inside often do not see the writing on the wall. They know what made them successful in the past - if they only do more of it they will be successful again (See the Incremental Innovation Trap).

So - burning platform?
1) I have tried just describing what is happening - rarely works, they feel they know their business better than you (they do, problem is that this isn't so much a business issue as it is a lifecycle issue).
2) I have tried to highlight the big successes - doesn't work, despite the differences in how the success was developed, they only see "if we continue on our path we will hit something like this" (We are talking massive blinders).
3) Highlight what competitors are doing - this can work if the company is getting beaten handily by a competitor, but what if they are the leader in a slowing industry?
4) Use data to tell a story - Most potential, but inconclusive. This is the bane of most innovators who are generally idea people. This is why most innovation articles are about idea generation and development and less about analysis and metric tracking. People throw around % of revenue from new products, but that metric is faulty. I prefer Annual Revenue Growth from New Products as a starting point, but you will need to drill further. Creating a burning platform using data is a massive discussion in itself.

Anyways, these are my thoughts, I hope they add to the discussion.

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