Monday, December 31, 2012

Never too busy for innovation

Here, on the last day of 2012, is both a blog post and a tip of the hat to some people who have been good friends and influencers over the last year.  First, the post.

Never too busy for innovation

Stephen Covey, the noted management thinker, suggested a number of principles for good leadership.  "Sharpen the Saw" - prepare before you work.  "Keep the main thing the main thing" - focus on what is important.  But to my mind the most important concept he introduced is the idea of important versus urgent.  Executives are paid to do the important things, but are far too often pulled back into the urgent things.  To succeed at innovation, we need to find far more time and resources for the important things, like growth, differentiation and market disruption, rather than the urgent things like achieving the next quarter.  When executives and managers allow themselves to be drawn in to urgent issues, rather than delegating the decisions and actions and using their brainpower on more important, long term and innovative issues, they are "too busy" for innovation.  An appropriate reordering of executive time, focus and attention is important to sustain innovation.

Setting priorities
The priorities of most organizations are backward.  They spend an inordinate amount of time improving the business models and operational efficiencies of products and services that are becoming outdated, and not nearly enough time understanding and preparing for the world as it will be in the immediate future.  When change was slow and predictable, the focus on honing the existing business model made sense.  Now, however, as the pace of change accelerates, business models rise and fall and global markets move simultaneously we don't have time to focus on internal processes and perfect long-existing methods.  We need to be constantly focusing on what's next. Setting the right balance between existing efficiencies and evolving new markets and capabilities is vital.

Why people are important
Innovation is the last process that is truly people-centric.  Over the years, through many management philosophies, we've automated the manufacturing processes, improved customer facing processes, eliminated variances in those processes and supported or enabled processes through enterprise resource management (ERP) software.  For the most part, the job that many people hold is to ensure the automated processes work the way they are intended to work.  In other words, many people hold jobs that are about managing exceptions to finely tuned automated processes.  Innovation refuses to be automated.  Machines and processes cannot offer insights or creativity.  Machines and computers cannot generate meaningful ideas or spot important emerging trends or have deep empathetic conversations with potential customers.  Gathering insights, evaluating trends, generating ideas remain the responsibility of people.  And, if innovation is vital for growth and differentiation, then the people who are working on innovation ought to be the absolute best people in the organization.

Why assign the best people to manage potential exceptions to well-oiled existing business processes, when the growth, differentiation and ultimately the survival of your business is based on your ability to innovate?  What are the best people in your organization doing?  Do they have enough time for innovation, or is it even on their list of things to do?

The reality

The reality is, it is difficult if not impossible to make a sudden switch and to place all of the best people in what is still a relatively unformed activity with limited definition and often conflicting priorities.  That said, how can your team, with limited time and resources, achieve the best possible outcomes for innovation?  Once it has demonstrated the ability to innovate, how does it build on that success and continue to grow skills and competence?

Starting from the beginning, you need clear priorities, strong, dedicated and committed people who understand their efforts are not a "one-time" event but a true shift in the intent and focus of the business, and you need to deliver tools and methods to help direct the work.  Recognize that they will fail sometimes and succeed sometimes, and that's the price of learning.  Reward and celebrate the wins and recognize and learn from the failures, but most importantly keep re-investing in the effort.

You'll eventually find your business is never too busy for innovation, when the priorities are balanced between retaining an existing efficient set of business processes while constantly striving for more innovation.  You'll find there is always time for innovation when the best people clamor to work on innovation activities, and that they are backed by defined tools, methods and processes.  You'll discover that there is no shortage of willing people when the rewards for innovation are as valuable as the rewards for maintaining the status quo. 

And until these factors are true you'll find that your teams are always too busy for innovation.

A tip of the hat at the end of the year

The end of another year affords us time to look back across the year just ended and recognize a lot of great people who have provided insights or helped us along the way.  I'd be remiss if I didn't recognize a few people who have encouraged me and continue to push me to become a better innovator.  They are, in no particular order:

Paul Hobcraft - who is constantly thinking about innovation, especially the cultural and management aspects of innovation.

Renee Hopkins and Drew Marshall - for their support of Innochat, the best discussion about innovation on Twitter.  I encourage you to get involved if you aren't.

Chris Marin - who works for Spigit.  Chris has been a great support to our local PDMA chapter and has a lot of passion for improving healthcare in North Carolina.

Sue Burek, Nheeda Enriquez, Chuck Mays, Steve Josey and the other board members at our Carolinas PDMA Chapter.  A great bunch of people who do a lot to further the concepts of product development and innovation.

Braden and the team at InnovationExcellence and Karin and Chuck and their teams at for keeping us all in the public eye and up to date with the latest opinions on innovation.

Last but certainly not least, OVO clients.  We learn as much from you as hopefully you learn from us.  Thanks for a great 2012 and we look forward to serving you in 2013.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:41 AM


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