Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Innovation "Quick Fix"

Recently we received a call from a potential client. The individuals I spoke with noted a number of significant issues preventing them from innovation effectively. As I recall there were several significant issues: an "engineering" oriented culture, several large customers who demanded exceptionally high quality, few competitors and a complete lack of risk taking in the organization. The good news is that the management team has recognized that what worked in the past will not work in the future. The team has to become more market oriented, and the organization has to learn to identify and satisfy more customers. New competitors are entering the market, so the firm, once very comfortable and slow moving, has to learn to move more quickly, identify customer needs and innovate to create new products and services.

So far, so good. A firm that has recognized the importance of innovation, and how far the firm is from being a "good" innovator. The bad news is that the firm is seeking the proverbial "quick fix".

Rather than change the factors that influence whether or not a firm can innovate successfully, like the expectations people carry around with them, or how people are evaluated and compensated, or identifying some key new market opportunities and seeking out the best ideas, the firm asked for training. The executive team wanted to train five or six people in innovation methods over a couple of days. This training, it seemed, was budgeted and available to be spent, so that training would inform all the work that would be done to make the firm more innovative until the next budgets kicked in in January 2010.

Now, leave aside for a second the challenges that any firm faces when innovating and place yourself in the shoes of the folks who will be trained. What, exactly, are they going to do for the next four months? How can they succeed when everything in the culture is diametrically opposed to what they might learn? How can they enact any changes with no budgets, no clear goals and little management commitment? Why exercise this training budget simply because it exists to be spent?

Don't get me wrong, I am fully on board with training to improve innovation skills. We offer a program of innovation training, and that's why we had been called in. However, I can see a difficult proposition when I see one, and we suggested that this approach didn't make sense.

Leaving aside the matter of training, innovation requires bold leadership. Is it wise to take a number of people steeped in a culture that the firm admits will struggle to innovate and train them for a couple of days in innovation techniques but then not exercise any of the training? Can we even find a person who could define and manage an innovation program within the ranks of the people inside the organization? If we could find a person to lead an innovation effort, would he or she get any management help or funding? Probably not this year.

Everyone wants innovation, and everyone wants it to be easy, and fast, and painless. Yet they freely admit that their organization will struggle to innovate and that there are many competing interests and goals. Good innovators understand that innovation is driven by the culture of the organization, the expectation of the people and the leaders and that it is interesting, but hard work to do it well. There are no quick fixes for innovation, and if there's a significant amount of "low hanging" fruit in your organization, then your managers aren't doing their jobs.

There's no better time than the present to understand this and decide to take on the change necessary to become better at innovation. Every firm is rethinking its strategy and its capabilities in this downturn. Any reasonable firm knows that changes are in store for almost every firm in every industry. If change is necessary, and innovation requires change, let's do it now, and bite the bullet when we have to change anyway. There are no quick fixes or cheap solutions, but there are examples throughout every industry of firms that are innovating and reaping the benefits.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:38 AM


Anonymous gspadoni said...

Excellent post, as usual, Jeffrey. I hope the company you mention took your advice to heart.

It's easy to talk about innovation and label any old change "innovative" -- but what truly meets the criteria is quite a different beast...

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