Monday, August 24, 2009

Working as designed

I was pondering recently why it can be so hard for a large firm to innovate successfully. Too often it seems we are trying to graft an innovation capability or process on top of existing teams and workflows. While these grafted processes can work effectively for a short time, while the white hot focus of management is felt, often these grafted processes wither and die if not constantly renewed and refreshed. Then it hit me. I'd just finished reading and reviewing Design Driven Innovation by Roberto Verganti. His thesis is that innovation should be driven, even led, by design. Innovation efforts often feel grafted on because the organization is working as it was designed to.

Many of my larger clients are Fortune 1000 firms that have well defined business teams and processes. After a round of Total Quality Management, Six Sigma and Lean in the 80s and 90s, these processes and workflows are well documented and highly efficient. Add to the fact that many firms have grown without adding headcount, and the processes are maxed out in terms of throughput and efficiency. There's little more work that can be added. Now, attempt to introduce a concept or process that requires change, risk, failure and uncertainty, that seeks to "hit a home run" when all the other processes seek to hit consistent singles and doubles and never make an error (sorry about the baseball analogy). Not only does innovation violate the "designed" process, it adds new work that conflicts with existing standards and norms. Innovation efforts, in most cases, are added to a fully engaged workforce in opposition to existing standards and processes.

So, if many firms have difficulty innovating because of existing expectations and designed processes, is the opposite also true? Do firms that innovate successfully have well designed innovation programs that are part of the fabric of how they work? In general the answer is "yes" with the caveat that every innovator has its own methods and approaches. Apple, for example, innovates from the top down in a very structured process informed by user design and experience. WL Gore, on the other hand, innovates from the bottom up and from specific capabilities or technologies. P&G, as a third example, has shifted from a completely internal R&D organization to one that receives 50% of its ideas from outside. Talk about a significant change of design and process! Each of these firms is innovative, and each has a defined, designed process for innovation success, and each process or design is different.

What's important to realize is that innovation can be designed into your organization, into the processes and expectations of the employees. Rather than "graft" on an innovation process, if your team seeks consistent innovation over time, seek to design in the innovation capability. Your innovation methods and process and how it impacts your organization can and will be unique to your firm. There are no "best practices" yet, and quite possibly there won't be, as innovation means so many different things to so many different firms and people.

Rather than fight the existing systems to innovate, why not consider designing the innovation processes and methods into the structure of how the business works?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:31 AM

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