Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Make innovation your day job

I don't know why it is but I revel in those short pithy statements on bumper stickers like "Imagine Whirled Peas". One of my favorite ones is "Imagine the world where schools had enough money and the military had to hold bake sales".  These bumper stickers are light hearted twists on conventional wisdom or unfortunate reality, depending on your point of view.  My recommended new bumper sticker is "Make innovation your day job".  That is a twist on current reality and just extreme enough to get a guffaw out of many people who have tried to innovate in a corporate environment.

 I've written about the challenge of making innovation part of the regular expectations in a business - in my book Relentless Innovation I talked about converting from "business as usual" to the concept of "innovation business as usual" - where innovation is embedded in what you do every day.  I also addressed this topic in the innovation novel I wrote called Pulp Innovation.  In chapter 67 an innovation project is at risk because some of the key contributors have a problem.  The innovation work they want to do is becoming a barrier to getting their day job done.  While Pulp Innovation is fictional, the conflict between innovation work and the "day job" is real, and is only going to get worse.

Modern businesses have spent the last few decades slimming down, reducing headcount and optimizing processes and resources.  This means that everyone has a full time "day job", if not more than one job.  The workload has increased and the pace of change has accelerated, while meetings and calendar items have only increased.  Simply finding time to get the work done that you are expected to do becomes difficult.  Meanwhile, simply sustaining the status quo isn't enough.  Market demands require new products and new services at an ever increasing rate.  So, innovation is bolted on to the existing frameworks, and you are appointed to an innovation team.  In fact, you may be excited about doing innovation work, and think that it is important and urgent for your firm to do.

But here's the rub.  There are only 128 hours in a week, and your family expects to see you occasionally.  You'll need some time for sleep and personal grooming.  There's the commute to the office, and requirements for nourishment.  When incorporating the need to get your "day job" done when your deliverables are due, this leaves very early in the morning or very late at night for innovation work.  Your day job will always supersede innovation work.  Here's why:

You are evaluated on your day job work and results, not on innovation.  Your compensation and advancement opportunities are closely tied to your evaluation.  As long as innovation is viewed as a side job, and a nice to have, while the "day job" is where your evaluation, compensation and promotion opportunities are linked, your decisions are agonizing but ultimately a "no brainer".  Innovation work will be delayed, put off, "placed on the back burner" anytime a critical need arises in your day job.  Can you remember the last time there wasn't a fire to fight or a crisis concerning your day job?  Neither can I.

So, your firm wants innovation but can't understand why people can't find the time or energy to commit to innovation?  That's because of the day job conflict.  Until and unless people are responsible for innovation, are evaluated and compensated based on innovation outcomes and have the ability to assign the appropriate people to innovation work with the freedom to commit themselves to the work, and the understanding that their work will be recognized and valued, innovation is at best an occasional, sporadic event brought on in a panic when a product manager or a business line leader recognizes that they have no other choice.  Then innovation will be your day job, but only until the problem is resolved.

Many of us have an innovation day job.  We both love, and hate, our jobs.  We who get to do innovation regularly and consistently love the impact our ideas and work have in the market.  We hate how conflicted many of our clients are about the choices they are forced to make by firms that don't understand that innovation requires more than an hour or so a week from distracted and unmotivated employees.  It really is a Hobson's choice that many firms place on people in innovation teams.

For innovation to succeed, innovation needs to be somebody's day job, and that individual or team needs to be able to bring aboard the best people who are completely focused on innovation success, not constantly pulled back into their day job.  And yes, your best people are necessary because your ideas need to be better than average, and the resistance the ideas will face will require people the business respects.  Hopefully soon you'll see "Make innovation your day job" on bumpers coast to coast, right next to all of the political sticker, or one of my other personal favorites, "Keep honking I'm reloading".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:55 AM


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