Monday, October 29, 2012

The ten year overnight success

Last week I was working with an executive team, leading a session on our Workmat.  The Innovation Workmat is meant to identify the actions and roles senior leaders and executives must fulfill in order to build a culture and environment for innovation.  We walked the executives through the domains that comprise the workmat, and examined organizational strengths that support or sustain innovation, and gaps within the workmat that the organization must fill in order to sustain innovation more completely.  Needless to say, it was an interesting discussion, and always is.

One of the questions we always ask is:  what processes or functions do something well that the rest of the organization should emulate?  Rather than "reinvent the wheel" we look for pockets of success that can be replicated if possible.  One executive pointed to a counterpart and talked about their "overnight" success in open innovation.  There were several good examples of tech scouting, assessing and acquiring intellectual property and using that acquired technology to improve the capabilities of the organization.  In truth, the team in question has done a good job developing third party partnerships and building a strong capability to spot new technologies and intellectual property and bring those in house.

The executive who runs the open innovation program in question smiled, somewhat sardonically.  He turned to me and said, we are a ten year overnight success, and proceeded to remind his fellow colleagues about the amount of work that was required in order for that team to appear so successful today.  In fact, he stated, it was probably more like fourteen or fifteen years of work, overcoming resistance to external ideas and technologies, learning how to assess technologies and intellectual property, and changing attitudes and behaviors to reduce the "not invented here" mentality.  What appears to his colleagues as an overnight success is really a long, concerted effort to improve skills, change culture, define processes, change reward systems and align all of that work to corporate goals and strategies.  Which is just the workmat exercise in microcosm.

What many firms don't realize is that successful innovators weren't made from the whole cloth yesterday.  The firms we hold up as icons of innovation - Apple, 3M, Google, etc - are products of years of intentional development and focus.  People forget that when Jobs rejoined Apple in the late 1990s Apple was close to bankruptcy.  Their "new found" success is based on a significant amount of work to refocus the company, slim down product lines, introduce more design and customer experience into the solutions they create.  Apple is not an innovation overnight success but a product of years of change.  Fortunately for Apple, they had three things going for them that accelerated the change:  1) no where else to go but up 2) good roots as an innovator so it was probably easier to revert back to innovation and 3) a fearless leader who was determined to be first in the market.

When your executives demand instant innovation, it may be difficult to remind them that innovation is not an overnight activity.  Teams with little skill or training don't often create interesting, disruptive ideas naturally, and may need help to broaden their thinking or revise the cultural barriers to interesting ideas.  Further, even if they can generate great ideas, those ideas often run into a log jam in product or service development, where overworked, overscheduled teams are focused on existing products and cannot fathom how to trade off the existing schedules and commitments to deliver a completely new product or service.  And this example only assumes a single innovative concept, not a continuous capability.  In many firms the span of time from idea generation to product or service launch can be two or three years.  Clearly no firm is going to become an overnight success even with one new product, much less when you consider the work to build capabilities to sustain innovation over the long term.

So, what does your executive team want - one new idea or a sustained innovation capability?  So called "one hit wonders" take several years and create a single new product.  Overnight success as a sustained innovator can take many years, but it is the only path to lasting differentiation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:39 AM


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