Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Staking" out innovation success

In the past few weeks I've been exploring the idea of a "collaborative" innovation reference model or framework.  We had discussions with folks on Innochat, and I came to realize that the concept of a framework was viewed as limiting.

In a short call with John Lewis, we explored why the concept of a framework was perhaps confusing or sent the wrong message.  As we discussed the concept we agreed that three things were necessary for innovation to "take root" and grow.  You'll note a number of gardening or farming references in this post.  Further, I will call on  Peter Sellers, in his role of Chauncey Gardener in the movie Being There, to make my case.

First, the innovation plant needs good soil.  This means that the environment needs to be carefully considered.  The "soil" must be rich with people who understand the goals of the firm, and the culture must be supportive of innovation.  Second, the plant must be well anchored.  Any effort to create something new will meet with resistance.  Only a well-anchored plant survives wind and rain.  Likewise, a well-anchored innovation effort has a greater chance of survival.  Third, many plants are heliotropic, and grow upwards toward the sun.  Often, they need support because they can't support the weight of the plant and its fruit.  Many plants - tomatoes - for example, need a support system to bear the weight of the vine and the fruit.  Likewise, innovation efforts must have support "architecture" or infrastructure which helps support and sustain innovation work and outcomes.

As we discussed the concept of an innovation "framework", it appeared too confining, so as John and I talked we considered what we actually wanted - a supporting structure that allowed the innovation effort to achieve its best outcomes without necessarily dictating its direction or its upward growth.  The best analogy I could come up with is a trellis.  And yes, I know the link points to a tomato stake, not a true trellis.

A trellis offers a plant a "place" to grow, especially vertically, that the plant desires and needs, but does not dictate the rate of growth or place limits on how the plant should grow.  It supports the plant when adverse conditions occur, and as the plant becomes encumbered by its own weight.  A trellis is aspirational and supportive, never proscriptive or limiting.  Many plants simply couldn't grow to achieve their best outputs without a trellis or other supporting device.

Likewise, innovation needs a "trellis".  It clearly needs to be anchored against the shifting attitudes of the market and internal competition for resources.  Innovation needs support and an "infrastructure" to help it grow, encouraging but not limiting, directional but not dictatorial, expansive not contractive.

All three conditions:  good soil (or conditions and culture), good plants (good ideas or good teams) and good supporting structures (roadmaps, "models" or frameworks) are necessary for innovation success.  In gardening, a great tomato plant in good soil with no support structure may produce good fruit, but often that fruit doesn't reach its potential or rots on the ground undetected.  Many corporations start innovation projects with good plants, that is, good ideas, poor soil (a culture not attuned to innovation) and never give a second thought to the preparation of the soil, the care and feeding of the young plant, and the necessary structures that allow the plant to reach its full potential (models, frameworks, infrastructure, processes).

As I wrote in a Tweet last week, innovation is the plant that grows in the conditions you create.  Transplants in poor soil neglected and without support rarely thrive.  Perhaps the least understood component of the three is the supporting frameworks, since many executives don't appreciate how hard it is for these innovation plants to thrive in cultures and conditions that aren't favorable.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM


Anonymous John W Lewis said...

This is a great metaphor, Jeffrey. Our discussion may have sown the seeds and outlined the elements of this model, but you have rooted it in a soft place and cultivated it to greater heights.

Your concept of an extensible infrastructure is separate from, and also supports, whatever growth suits the soil and (I might add) the climate. This is clearly not at all constraining; on the contrary, it enables more fruit to be borne.

12:00 PM  
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