Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Innovation by the hour

I was working with a client recently on some innovation activities and he said to feel free to take another hour or two on the project if that's what was needed.  That comment made me think about innovation and its relationship to knowledge work.

In many organizations we have an expectation that a certain task should take a certain number of hours.  In many ways, while we'd like to think we've moved beyond "piece work" mentalities, we know it should take x hours to process a "normal" purchase order or y hours to complete a certain document.  Many of the tasks and activities we have have built into them an expected effort and amount of time to complete the task.  That thinking is more pervasive than you might believe.

When we begin to consider innovation activities and tasks, it can be very difficult to determine how "long" a project or activity may require, for several reasons.  First, there aren't a lot of established "norms" about the effort, so while we as consultants have expectations about how long it should take, the client has few previous experiences to compare to.  Unfortunately, there is an expectation that a consultant will "pad" their hours, so any recommendation we make is automatically cut by one third.

Second, since innovation is not something people do every day, they are more hesitant and less confident doing the work.  This means they often seek approval of the work they are doing when they don't need to, and seek approval from executives who aren't really sure what the work is either.  This often dramatically slows and lengthens the process.  Third, we usually have to train people in new tools and techniques.  You can't simply toss someone into the deep end of the pool and expect them to swim effectively, and you can't ask someone who hasn't been actively innovating to suddenly become an expert.

Fourth, unlike many other kinds of projects, in an innovation project there is often someone working against you or to undermine your work.  Inevitably with innovation, there are people who weren't included or feel threatened by the potential result, and those people work quietly but effectively around the edges of the project, sowing doubt and uncertainty.  This means the team often has to slow down to reassure wary sponsors.

Finally, some innovation work simply can't be put on a clock.  Can you tell me how long it will take to get a couple of really good ideas?  If you can put that work on a clock and do it predictably, there is a huge market opportunity for you.

Until we have a real innovation "science" with reasonably accepted standards, trying to measure innovation by the hour doesn't make sense.  There are too many uncertainties, too many unknowns and too many processes and people working, if not against you, then certainly not to speed your work.  As processes and methods become more defined, and the teams become more proficient, then innovation metrics and timeclocks will make sense.  But innovation is not piecework and never will be, and the sooner we eliminate that line of thinking, the better for all of us.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:24 AM


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