Managing for innovation
We "preach" managing for innovation to our clients. Yes, we do innovation projects, but a discrete innovation project is hopefully just the first step on a much larger journey - the journey that takes an organization from occasional innovation projects to committed innovation entity. What distinguishes a "once and done" innovation effort in an organization from an organization that is fully engaged and innovating all the time is the environment, the atmosphere, and the culture. And all of those factors are predicated on the management of the organization.
This is a long winded way of introducing our topic for today, which is the valuable arrival of the latest Nielsen study on innovation. You can read the synopsis here on the Nielsen site. Frankly, I am late to comment on this. Others already have - see here and Paul Slone's blog for example. What the Nielsen report indicates is that distance from the executive team fosters greater innovation capability. I'll take issue with whether that "distance" has to be geographic distance, or if the distance can merely be that the executive team offers space for the team to work and freedom to investigate ideas. But what's evident in the research is that a light touch managing an innovation effort is critical. In my thinking this means establishing the goals and developing the environment where innovation can flourish, and then allowing the work to progress relatively unimpeded, rather than constantly demanding updates and reports, and frequently shifting the emphasis of the effort.
In what is one of those "everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarden" moments, the synopsis states:
“One of the keys to successful new product innovation is to manage new ideas lightly,” said Agan. “While we don’t dispute senior management’s strengths and good intentions, they are often too quick to get involved in the creative process, especially when things are not going well, and their mere presence can stifle free-thinking and boundaryless ideas – which can doom the new product development process to failure.”
Well, here's a Captain Obvious moment. We need innovation programs that have the freedom to follow the logical paths where the ideas will lead, rather than constantly evaluating, compromising and conditioning the ideas to our current realities. And since most managers need new products and services yesterday and want to deliver them in the next quarter, they can be excused (but not forgiven) for trying to shoehorn new ideas into solutions they can deliver tomorrow, rather than allowing the ideas to play out.
Next, the study suggests that rather than managing ideas, executives should pay more attention to the process. Yes! Finally, we are beginning to understand that the PROCESS is far more important than any idea within the process. The PROCESS can be sustainable, while any idea moving through the process has only a small chance of success. What's odd about this disparity is that in most instances executives are comfortable managing the processes and don't get too involved with the projects and initiatives within the process, as long as the process is within some tolerance level. In innovation programs, there's little investment given or attention paid to the process, and all focus on the ideas. We get innovation exactly backward, contrary to the way we run the rest of our businesses.
There's a good reason for this - innovation involves doing something new, different and risky, so we believe that every idea is sacred, every idea is immensely valuable and should be nurtured and coddled. No, ideas are COMMODITIES - it's the process that matters, not the ideas. And, what's also nice, is that an innovation process can be incubated and tailored to an organization's focus or culture. Apple's innovation process is really different from Google's, which is really different from P&G's, but they all have defined processes and those firms reinforce the processes effectively and build cultures, atmospheres and behaviors that encourage idea generation.
For those of us who "do" innovation frequently, the Nielsen study isn't an "ah ha" report. It is a statement of the obvious. For those of you who hope to do innovation well, please consider it not an outlier, but the gospel truth - manage the processes distinctly and create the atmosphere or cultural tolerance for ideas and innovation. As the report says - manage ideas lightly and the process precisely.