Friday, October 29, 2010

The "right" time for innovation

So it actually all comes down to this - my prospects and clients need to understand when the "right" time for innovation is.  After all, what we usually hear from executives is that "this isn't the right time" for innovation.  Not that they don't want innovation, or don't need innovation, or that innovation is too risky or expensive.  No, the usual response is that this simply isn't the "right" time.

So, in the interest of public edification I decided to conduct a thought experiment, out loud.  What, I asked myself, are the appropriate conditions so that one can identify the "right time" for innovation.

First I considered the most obvious time.  That most obvious time for innovation is when the wind is behind you, the sun on your face and the markets can't get enough of your products and services.  In other words, the ideal time to innovate would seem to be when you are on top of the world.  However, a note of caution creeps in.  We don't want to distract from our good run by taking good people and have them explore new ideas - that's a distraction.  We certainly don't want to kill the golden goose by identifying new products and service that will cannibalize our best products and services, and we ought to "double down" on what's making us successful right now. 

So, even though these conditions would seem ripe for innovation, there are too many other activities consuming the management team to seriously consider innovation when they are on top.

What about the reverse?  Is innovation a panacea for those firms that are desperate?  Is the "right" time for innovate when there seems to be no other option?  Hardly.  Firms that are struggling to compete and keep their heads above water will occasionally throw the "Hail Mary" pass with innovation, but are usually cutting so fast that to invest in innovation seems difficult.  Not to mention the fact that when a firm is struggling, having a small team think about big ideas seems unreasonable.  It's all hands on deck until the ship gets righted.  Not to mention the overwhelming sense of urgency that pervades a firm when the days seem darkest.  Few firms are going to place investments in ideas with long range outcomes when everyone is bailing water.

OK, so the right time isn't in the good times or the bad times.  What about the "in between" times?  Periods when the firm isn't struggling and isn't on top.  That should be most of the time in most firms.  Yet there always seems to be an excuse.  For example, we'd conduct an innovation initiative if only we could:

  • Find the funding
  • Find more people
  • Be sure we'd get a return
  • Get the executives on board
  • Get the company on board
 I guess my point is that there isn't a "right" time to innovate.  It's actually a contradiction in terms.  Perhaps the way to think about the "right" time to innovate is to stop thinking about innovation as a discrete activity and frame it as an ongoing exercise or program.  As an example, when is the right time to start eating right, cut out the junk food and start exercising?  Really, anytime you decide to do so.  When is the right time to exercise consistent personal hygiene?  All the time, consistently, otherwise you'll be outcast from your home and your place of business.

This is the fallacy that many firms fall into.  There is rarely a "right time" for a discrete innovation activity.  It's too risky, too uncertain, too dangerous and expensive, so the conditions are never right.  However, if we ask the question differently - consider innovation as a consistent capability - a corporate hygiene concept - then the answer is: as soon as possible.  If innovation is a discrete event, the risk, the training and the uncertainty hurdles are presented every time innovation is considered.  If your firm understands how to innovate and does it consistently, the hurdles are removed and people conduct innovation business as usual.

The right time to start innovating is whenever you decide to create an innovation capability, not a discrete, stand alone, very risky innovation project that won't be supported or sustained.  Once your team has some experience and defined processes, innovation will become a consistent capability, so you won't have to ask "when is the right time", your folks will be doing it all the time. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:14 AM


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Anonymous Jim Morgan said...

This is an odd parallel, I know, but Jeffrey's thought experiment brought to mind something columnist Ann Landers wrote regularly: the time to tell a child about "x" (where babies come from, etc.) is when they ask. You answer in an age-appropriate way, but honestly and right away.

I think the same is true for innovation. The time to do it is when you think of it. But as Jeffrey implies, you don't just jump right in. Consider why the thought came to mind to identify the challenge that is bothering you. Then take a deliberate path in choosing the innovation and how to implement it. Great post, Jeffrey.

6:31 AM  
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