Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Breaching the innovation "wall"

If you've ever been a distance runner, you know about the dreaded "wall".  For every runner there's a point in a race or a distance at which everything conspires to make you quit.  Your body aches, the path seems too steep, the wind is in your face, and your mind and body screams for rest and relaxation.  Yet you'll learn, if you choose to push through the wall, that running on the "other side" of the wall seems easier, less fretful and more enjoyable.  The mystery of distance running is that it's often the start and the first segments that are the most difficult, while the last segments and the finish are blissful.  Strangely, innovation is like that too.

Runners know that many factors become potential and real barriers when starting a run.  Weather, the topography of the course, the number of competitors, an individual's mental state.  All of these factors play a part in the start of a race.  Likewise, for innovators, many factors present hurdles or barriers.  Perhaps one of the most significant hurdles is a poorly defined initiative or need.  All too often innovators are told to create an interesting, important new product, with few defining characteristics or evident customer needs.  Another barrier is the expectation that existing systems, knowledge and skills are all that is necessary to innovate.

But the runners and innovators set out on their assigned tasks.  Runners can tell you that in the initial stages of the workout or race, many intangible, unseen forces work against them, compounding each other until many runners hit "the wall", which is often much more a mental block or barrier than a real physical barrier.  The mental conditions, unseen forces and intangible barriers add up to force many people to quit running.  Likewise, innovators also encounter "the wall" but their wall is made up of sponsor expectations, limited budgets, the challenge of creating something new in an environment perfected to constantly create the same product very effectively.  There are no physical barriers, just a significant amount of intangible, cultural and expectations barriers that cause an innovator to lose focus and hope.

What happens when a runner hits their wall is important.  If the runner gives up and quits, he or she will never become a great runner or experience what running is like on the other side of the wall.  He or she accepts a mental and artificial limit on his or her skills and abilities, and limits themselves.  Similarly, when innovators succumb to the innovation "wall", they never experience the freedom and breadth of skills and insights that are available to them if they can push through the wall that is constructed of cultural barriers.  If innovators never push through the wall, it becomes self-reinforcing, and organizations come to believe that they "aren't innovative" when in reality they simply don't have the persistence and commitment to get to the other side of the innovation wall.

What happens on the other side of the wall?  For runners, endorphins kick in and running takes on new characteristics.  Runners gain a "second wind" and can often run much further and much faster than they expect.  Innovators experience a similar but different reality when they push through the innovation wall.  They find that innovation becomes much more simple, much more intuitive and much more obvious.  They are able to create meaningful, relevant ideas and both incremental and disruptive ideas much more easily.  Most organizations cannot innovate consistently or easily because their teams have never broken through their corporate "wall".

What does it take to break through the wall?  For runners, it is commitment to push through even when the voice in your head tells you to stop.  For innovators, it is commitment to doing more than the organization expects or perhaps even tolerates, and trusting that the skills and competencies built when approaching the wall will sustain you on the other side of the wall.  If you never break through the innovation wall, you'll never experience what true innovation can be, and what it can deliver for your organization.  And even if you do manage to break through the wall, corporate forces will arrange themselves to push you back or strengthen the wall, until you've proven that the wall can be breached and real benefits exist.

Many running books will argue that there are different strategies for breaching the wall when running.  I think the real solution is commitment.  Ignoring the subtle voices in your head and the aches and pains in your body and pushing through the imaginary wall results in much greater outcomes and even greater enjoyment.  One can argue about carbo loading, different training regimes and so forth, but when you hit the wall it is your commitment that pushes you through.  The same is true for innovators.  Only innovators who have real commitment to innovation outcomes, and the support and sponsorship of their organizations, can breach the innovation wall and demonstrate the real opportunities and outcomes effective innovation can achieve.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Columbus as a model for innovators

I've had the chance to meet and speak with a lot of people who are interested in creating more innovation in their organizations.  Some of them have been asked to lead an innovation effort, and some are just interested in becoming more innovative themselves.  Most understand that innovation isn't an activity or a project, but few understand the amount of investment, work and change management required to sustain innovation beyond an initial attempt.  In this way I think we can look to the past for figures who represent the challenges and opportunities that are presented to innovators.  Perhaps no figure represents the highs and lows of innovation like Christopher Columbus.  And few other figures demonstrate the consistency of purpose, dogged determination and singular focus that's necessary for innovators to succeed.

Defining Innovation
We remember Columbus as the discoverer of the new world, when in reality, he was probably only the most celebrated.  Clearly, there were people already in the new world, indigenous people.  Also, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the Vikings discovered North America centuries before Columbus did.  Yet it doesn't really matter, and the same thing is true with innovation.  Most innovators don't discover something completely new.  It's often the case that others have discovered a product or solution but didn't recognize its potential.  Or, innovators import ideas and concepts from adjacent markets rather than attempting to create something entirely new.  Good innovators understand how to celebrate a victory and how to create good publicity.  Look no further than Steve Jobs or Christopher Columbus.

Seeing unexpected benefits
Beyond discovering the new world, we have to look at his original goals and what he declared as success.  Columbus was perhaps not the best at setting goals - few believed he could sail all the way to the Indies - but he did wash up on what he called a "new world" and was smart enough to declare it a victory.  In this Columbus was adaptable and able to help his clients see that the original intended goal was important, but so was what he found or created.  In this there are lessons for innovators - set clear objectives, but be flexible and able to realize when you've found or created something that is valuable but unexpected.  Also, realize that innovation, unlike the rest of the work in your organization, is unpredictable.  Be prepared to recognize unexpected benefits.  Columbus was able to turn a potential defeat - failure to reach the Indies - into a success.  We innovators need to be able to present our innovation wins - even when they don't match initial goals - as victories that allow us to keep innovating.

Columbus is important in another way - his determination.  Columbus realized for all the acclaim that he had not achieved his original goals, and set out not once, not twice, but three more times on missions of discovery.  He did not allow an initial failure to stymie his goals, but sought to learn and capitalize on the previous missions.  We innovators need to learn that innovation will not always offer up the results we hoped for, but that's no reason to stop trying.  Simply incorporate what you've learned and try again.

Engaged Sponsors
Columbus also understood what many modern innovators fail to understand - the need for a sponsor who has big needs or big goals.  Columbus talked with many monarchs about his goals to reach the Indies.  The Spanish were interested because they were late to the trading game and needed new markets.  They had recently united their country and were looking abroad for greater glory.  Other monarchs and sponsors had turned Columbus away.  Good innovators understand that a sponsor who has either vital challenges that must be overcome, or who has a big vision are vital to success.

Making the most of limited means
Columbus understood that even a committed sponsor like the Spanish could only offer him so much in terms of resources.  He accepted what his sponsors could offer and made the most of it, rather than decide not to attempt the journey.  As innovators we have to learn to live within limited means and resources, and demonstrate the benefits and value propositions.  In subsequent exercises we can obtain more resources based on the success of the first mission, just as Columbus did.

Believing his vision
Columbus and the people of his day didn't believe they would "sail off the edge of the world".  They knew the world was round.  The people who rejected his vision simply felt that he could not sail to the Indies heading west because of the distance involved.  If the western continents hadn't existed, and Columbus had faced open ocean, the naysayers would have been right.  But this points out another characteristic of innovators - the belief in their own vision and the ability to stretch their thinking beyond what is known to be "true".  The naysayers didn't think there was any land between them and the Indies.  Turns out that the naysayers were right about the distance, but wrong about other "facts".  These blindspots or "facts" that aren't facts block many organizations from innovating, and require committed innovators to overcome.

Never Satisfied
Finally, Columbus was never really satisfied.  After discovering the new world, claiming an entire continent for Spain, bringing back new insights, new discoveries and opening the door to colonization and the eventual wealth of Spain in gold and silver, Columbus remained a discoverer.  He wanted more, he consistently went further.  We as innovators need to instill this passion in ourselves, but more importantly in our companies.  Too many firms believe that they must change, but when they make a change they can then rest on their laurels.  The competitive markets are moving much too quickly and consistently to allow that.  Our firms must be never satisfied, which means our innovators must be able to constantly and consistently innovate.

Columbus wasn't perfect.  He didn't arrive at his original goal, and probably didn't discover the new world.  But his persistence, his ability to make the most of limited means, his ability to recognize and recruit sponsors, his ability to trust his vision and overcome the doubters, and his openness and ability to recognize success make him a model for modern innovators.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM 0 comments

Friday, June 15, 2012

The only three innovation models you need

After years, nay, almost a decade, of innovation consulting I can say to you that innovation, while widely discussed and often parodied, has only three models or forms.  It's due to deep investigation, experience and a small dash of cynicism that I can offer this simplified insight to you.  But once I expose the three variation of innovation, I think you are sure to agree with my categorizations.  And if you don't, there's always the comments section to tell me where I've gone astray.

Three innovation models

Let's start by asserting that there are really only three innovation models in place in organizations today.  Those models are based on what the corporate culture allows, how deeply the executive team is engaged and how well innovation is understood.  The three models are:
  • Isolation:  Innovation in a secretive skunkworks, isolated from the rest of the business
  • Bolt-on:  Innovation as an activity bolted on to the "performance engine" or what I've called "business as usual"
  • Embedded:  Innovation complete distributed in the operating model or performance engine, so that innovation is a constant capability in line with strategy and operations
You may be tempted to argue that I've missed one, which is a discrete innovation activity that isn't meant to impact the organization over the long term.  Perhaps you are correct.  But increasingly many firms are going to deploy one, or more, of the models I've described above simply because doing discrete innovation projects isn't valuable or productive.  Let's look briefly at each of these models.


Innovation is often relegated to a skunkworks, to allow more creativity and expansiveness, and to keep the existing mental models, barriers and frameworks from limiting the thinking.  Perhaps the best known example of isolation is the development of the MacIntosh, when Jobs placed a team dedicated to a new platform in another building, isolated from the rest of Apple.  The signal that a continuous skunkwork sends is that the corporation wants its cake, and want to eat it too.  It wants innovation -really interesting, disruptive innovation - but doesn't want to change its culture or operating model to do so.  To accomplish this task, it isolates disruptive innovation in a skunkworks, importing the ideas back into the business as new products or services.

Skunkworks can work on occasion, but require very focused and capable small teams of fully dedicated people to spend a dramatic amount of time away from the business, and then attempt to re-enter the business with a product or service that the rest of the organization had not part in developing.  Unless the executive team provides exceptional cover for the skunkworks team and their ideas, re-entry is difficult, for the idea and for the team.


The "bolt-on" approach to innovation is the approach most attempted, and the one that causes the most grief and confusion.  Bolting on innovation to an existing "business as usual" operating model or what some call the "performance engine" is often distracting and devastating in two simultaneous dimensions.  First, it disrupts and diverts the existing work streams and processes, which don't understand how to interact with new concepts or ideas.  Second, it constantly draws into question the rationale, purpose and tools of innovation work, since they are unusual and unfamiliar.

The vast majority of firms attempting innovation today are using a "bolt on" model, which is perhaps the worst of the three models to use, since it isn't optimized to sustain existing workflows or optimized to improve innovation outcomes.  It actually affects both negatively, but the bolt on approach requires the least investment.


We assert, regularly, that innovation must become a core competence.  Given the speed of change, the increasing competition and customer demand for new products and new features, organizations must improve their ability to bring relevant products to market more quickly.  Its only when innovation works hand in hand with effective business processes and the "business as usual" operating model that innovation will be deployed effectively and repeatedly.  Good innovators know this and have already begun to shift how they work and think toward this model.  I wrote Relentless Innovation to highlight some of these firms.

Yet this approach is the one that is least likely to be attempted of the three, because of the organizational change and management commitment involved.  Everyone recognizes the need for increased innovation capability, but many recoil at the costs, in terms of skill development, commitment and especially change management.  Of the firms doing innovation well, and consistently, they have embedded innovation as a continuous capability and a core competency.

Where are you?

The big question is:  where is your business?  Are you isolating innovation to try to optimize disruptive innovation and protect your internal operation processes?  Or are you bolting innovation on to a highly efficient operating model sure to resist innovation?  Perhaps you are attempting both.  The point is that neither build skills and competencies which are necessary for long term success.  And I won't even bother to talk about occasional, discrete innovation projects, which are most often doomed to failure.

Many of you reading this will say, but wait, he left out "open" innovation.  But my assertion is that until you define and implement an internal innovation capability, you can't perform successful external or open innovation.  Even in an open innovation model your team must implement methods and frameworks to manage ideas internally, which brings us back to the three models.  Open innovation is exceptionally valuable, no argument, but can't be sustained without some form of an internal method or approach.

Your thoughts?

 I'd love to hear from you about your thoughts, whether you agree with my simplified model or not.  Please provide some comments or email me to take the discussion further.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:42 AM 6 comments

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Innovation will become a core competency

If you've lived a while as a consultant to corporations, you've had the chance to see significant, even tectonic change to the way things work in larger enterprises over the last 20-30 years.  Stuff that would have seemed illogical or inconsequential we now consider imperative, and right now, things that seem incremental or short-lived may rapidly become mission-critical. 

When I think of this I am constantly reminded of Gandhi's saying about change:  first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.  The history of significant change in larger organizations is exactly this.  Consider, for example, one of the first "waves" of change - the quality movement. 

Back in the 70s, the major American manufacturers built fairly good cars and had the customer convinced that he or she should simply trade it in every 3 or 4 years.  This meant plenty of repeat business and a lack of exposure to perhaps some less than stellar quality.  The Japanese entered the market with cars in a lower price point that were good enough for many first time buyers.  Those manufacturers learned from feedback to improve quality, which meant that car buyers held on to cars longer and could compare the Japanese imports and their quality to the American manufacturers.  I remember reading in the late 80s about American manufacturers establishing "quality" review at the end of the manufacturing line.  This struck me then as absurd.  You don't change quality at the end of the process - you design for it and implement quality throughout the process.  And that's what eventually happened.  The story of quality is that it at first was laughed at, then bolted on, then it became a core operating principle.

The subsequent waves of management thought pursued much the same methodology.  Concepts like Lean and Six Sigma were at first experiments in small outposts, which were slighted or ignored by the larger organization.  As they proved their worth, these tools were introduced throughout the organization, and have now settled in and become the new normal.  They are now "table stakes" to compete effectively.

But when do we hit the stage of diminishing marginal returns for efficiency and need to shift to a new management philosophy?  I've argued here before that that time is now.  Our operating models are working at peak productivity and efficiency.  Concepts like quality, Six Sigma, Lean, downsizing are embedded in the operating model, they aren't laughed at or bolted on.  But there's not much more runway or gains to be had from an ever increasing focus on efficiency.

Today, innovation is in the second of Gandhi's three phases.  We've been through the "laughed at" phase where innovation is considered interesting but ultimately childish.  IBM showed us commercials of people "innovating" - lying on the floor in a dark room.  Many organizations have a room with outlandish colors and interesting toys to spark creativity.  But these brief interludes haven't threatened anything yet.  Innovation needs to declare war on the "status quo" so we can move briskly into the second phase.  Innovation and efficiency are itching for a fight.  One of them will win.  Either efficiency will defeat innovation, and leave innovation as a nice to have, valuable at the fringe, or innovation will win, but do so graciously, recognizing the importance of efficiency and demanding only a return to balance between efficiency and innovation.  They've laughed at innovation, now, we need a good fight, because somebody or something has got to win.

My final argument is that regardless of what wins in your organization - innovation or efficiency - the market has already decided.  The market has indicated that efficiency is important, but innovation is vital.  Innovation is vital because of the increasing pace of change, the rapid acceptance and adoption of new products and services, the falling barriers to market entry.  The clockspeed of your market is accelerating, and you can't compete by becoming more efficient.  This thinking is akin to having a car with ever increasing gas mileage in a drag racing competition.  Your car may be more efficient, but that's not the competitive advantage any more.

Innovation, like many of the other corporate strategic waves, will simply enter the business model as a "must have" core competency, and take its rightful place alongside quality and Six Sigma and a lot of other management strategies.  The difference is that innovation is a growth strategy and a differentiation strategy rather than a consolidation or efficiency strategy, so its entry into the lexicon may require a different style of thinking and attitudes from senior executives.  The model can't change until it needs to, and until there are people to shepherd its change.  One day, ten years or so from now, we'll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.  Innovation competencies and core capabilities were inevitable for competitive differentiation, we'll say.  What were they thinking?

Innovation as a core competence is inevitable.  The question is:  can your organization shift quickly enough to adopt innovation as a core competence?  Not to bend innovation to the corporate will, but to bend the corporate will to innovation. Those that do will gain long term success.  Those that ignore or laugh at innovation now will fight a much more difficult fight later - attempting to adopt innovation while fighting for market share with competitors that made the transition earlier.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:11 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why are there no innovation "best sellers"?

I was contemplating the breadth and depth of books about innovation recently when a thought occurred to me.  I suspect that David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, has sold more copies of his book than all the authors of all books about innovation combined.  David Allen's Getting Things Done has been in the top ten list of business books for over a decade, something I think few other books can claim.  The question that runs through my head is - why is innovation considered to be so important, and yet so few people seem to read any of the many books written about innovation?

The first conclusion one couple jump to is that there are so many books written about innovation that no one book or author could become recognized.  Yes, there are many books written, and frankly many of them, even by well-known authors, are uninformative or unimaginative.  The books that stand the test of time are still the ones written by authors like Christensen and Hamel.  Here's my list of my favorite innovation books, including, immodestly, one of my own.  These are books that every innovator should have on their desks or close bookshelves as ready references.

Looking over the list points out another challenge to identifying a single "best seller" for innovation.  Innovation is a broad umbrella term for a wide array of tools, techniques and methods used to generate and manage new ideas, which may become new products, services or business models.  Innovation branches out into "open" innovation, design-led innovation, reverse innovation and many other flavors and characteristics.  It could be that innovation is such a broad topic that there is a book for anyone, but no one book suffices for everyone.

But neither of these arguments is satisfactory.  Yes, there are many books written about innovation, and innovation is a broad subject.  But there are many books written about personal productivity, and many authors (Covey, Robbins, etc) who are well-known who write about personal productivity.  I think there is something deeper at work.

Using Getting Things Done as an example, we can see that the title itself describes a benefit.  If I learn David's methodology, I may get more done in less time.  I may become more productive, more efficient.  That translates to more time to do more things, or doing the same number of tasks with higher attention and improved outcomes.  In other words, becoming more productive has immediate benefits for me, personally.  Even if no one else works with me to become more productive, I can be more productive at my work, in my personal life, in every aspect of my life.  I invest in the work and I gain the benefits.  Note that some change is necessary.  If I adopt the Getting Things Done methodology I have to change the way I work, in order to take advantage of the benefits.  But I don't necessarily require anyone else to change.  I make the changes, I invest the time and I reap the benefits, even if no one else participates.

And it's this factor that I think separates innovation books and thinking from productivity or other management thought.  Productivity can start at the most basic level - one person focused on one task or one job, and can scale to the largest organization.  As people adopt new methods of working, each can gain a benefit personally and all can gain benefits as corporately they become more productive.  On the other hand, other than perhaps individual inventors with deep skill in intellectual property protection, product development and commercialization, most individuals don't gain much by increasing their personal innovation capabilities.  Even the titles tell this story:  "Getting Things Done" speaks to outcomes and success.  "The Innovator's Dilemma" speaks to confronting challenges.  In many ways, it can be more aggravating and frustrating to become more innovative personally while those around you resist innovation or ignore it.  Few people in corporations benefit by becoming more innovative while the rest of the organization focuses on efficiency.  This is why you often see books written about innovation in a group or corporate setting, but rarely about personal innovation.  Perhaps the best book about personal innovation is actually a book about creativity - von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head

I recently spoke to a large gathering of innovators.  I asked, who has read my book Relentless Innovation?  A few hands were raised.  Who has read The Innovator's Dilemma?  About 25% of the hands went up.  Blue Ocean Strategy?  Less than 10%.  The Art of the Long View? No hands were raised.  Open Innovation?  Two or three hands.  And these were active, engaged innovators in large organizations.  I think the biggest struggle many innovators ask themselves is:  What's in it for me?  What benefits do I get personally if I read these books?  It's difficult to innovate alone, and the cost and magnitude of change that must be invoked in an organization to become significantly better at innovation is almost prohibitive. 

There are three barriers that will keep innovation books from becoming best sellers:
  1. The ideas require a group, then a line of business, then the corporation, to agree on a new philosophy
  2. The change they recommend isn't easy and runs counter to many existing business practices
  3. There's little individual, personal benefit to learning and exercising the techniques alone
That's not to say that the combined wisdom isn't valuable or beneficial.  In fact it is often surprising to me how rarely corporate innovators tap into the absolute wealth of information about innovation is that available in published books.  There often seems a need, almost a desire, to discover for oneself or to reinvent what has already been discovered and documented. But that's a discussion for another time.

An innovation best seller must define how individuals, teams and organizations can benefit from the significant change necessary for innovation to flourish, and must demonstrate how that knowledge can be deployed and implemented quickly, without impact to existing knowledge or processes.  But since most organizations have deep investments in existing capabilities, that suggests that innovative companies have to be built with those concepts from the start.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:53 AM 1 comments

Monday, June 11, 2012

Innovation: Clockspeed, commitment and calendars

In my continuing series of posts about innovation and velocity, I am writing today about the poor understanding and alignment between time and innovation.  Your internal timeclocks are both too fast and too slow for innovation.  Those timeclocks are the corporate drumbeat, the "clockspeed" of your organization, which have worked well for decades.  The problem is that while 33 1/3 RPMs worked well in the past, your markets are moving at 45 RPMs, soon to progress to 78 RPMs.    Your internal clockspeeds don't matter to the market, until they cause your firm to respond far too slowly and cautiously to important change.

There are three issues with internal business time that I want to address today.  The first is clockspeed - how quickly the organization works when it is working to the optimized internal operating model.  The second is the time allotted to innovation projects, which we'll argue is often far too little, causing much innovation work to become incremental at best, and often incomplete.  The third issue with internal business time is the stubborn adherence to an annual planning cycle, which we adopted when man first planted and harvested grain in the Fertile Crescent in 5000 BC, and for some reason remains the predominant timing and planning cycle almost 7000 years later.


After 30 years of business process re-engineering, quality, lean, Six Sigma, rightsizing, outsourcing and who knows what other three and four letter acronyms, you have an efficient, effective operating model that sustains your business.  It is honed for efficiency and works to an internal drumbeat based on the steps and phases of your methodologies and is timed to 90 day increments, which is an artifact of the external market.  The problem is that while you've been honing your business model for every greater efficiencies, the external clockspeed has increased.  Customer demand has increased, imports have increased, the barriers to entry have decreased.  More products and services are available from more competitors, and the internet and its new channels have simply accelerated external clockspeed.  This has a negative impact on your organization in several ways.  First, even if you have good ideas, you'll have a difficult time getting them to market to match the evolving needs and market windows.  Second, if you fail to get products to market on time, the market doesn't stand still, it keeps accelerating.  You need to innovate your internal processes to make them more nimble, more agile and more adept at keeping pace with the external rate of change.


"Pulling the plug" too quickly is a fairly common occurrence in innovation timing.  This is the error of timidity and incremental thinking which constantly constrains innovation.  Far too many innovation initiatives are started, and once underway the scope of the effort is reduced, the team relieved of its duties and a modest incremental concept is adopted.  We provide far too little time for innovation - time in several components.  Far too little time for in depth research and analysis of problems, far too little time to understand the challenge and generate interesting ideas, far too little time to prototype and test ideas.  This failure to provide enough time and bandwidth is based on poor understanding of what it takes to innovate consistently and well.  As Fred Brooks noted in the Mythical Man Month, nine men can't make a baby in a month, and a constrained team operating in very short timeframes can rarely develop good ideas, unless they are working to a very well defined innovation methodology.  Since most innovation work is ad-hoc, almost all innovation work results in unsatisfactory incremental innovation.


We are people of the solar calendar, tracking all time based on the earth's revolution around the sun.  This timing made sense when we were primarily an agricultural people, tending crops, but annual planning cycles make little sense in a globally connected world where competitors have different planning cycles, and customers don't care about your planning cycle at all.  An annual planning cycle is too infrequent to matter given the pace of change, and doesn't look far enough into the future for discovery.  By its definition it is meant to predict 12 months into the future in relatively straight line planning.  Perhaps the worst impact is that the annual plan locks in spending for the next 12 months, allowing little deviation from investment plans.  Innovation doesn't work this way, and as external clockspeeds and competition increase, linking innovation to an annual planning cycle where funds are provided only once a year, and plans are set in concrete months ago simply hamstrings the product development teams and innovators.  Most of us don't work in agricultural pursuits, and many larger corporations have "follow the sun" work schedules to take advantage of the fact that distributed teams can work continuously on issues or designs.  While some components of your business may work well in an annual planning cycle, innovation requires thinking further, planning further, but also more nimbleness in funding the occasional idea that happens out of the annual sequence.

To succeed in the future, innovation must become a core competency, not a bolt on to existing processes.  You must increase your corporate clockspeed to at least match what's happening in your competitive markets and need to find more commitment to longer innovation investments.  Perhaps the biggest challenge of all will be to decouple innovation activities from annual planning cycles, which are both too short to spot emerging trends and too rigid when good ideas bubble up. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:36 AM 2 comments

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

What blocks speed blocks innovation

After a short hiatus I am back thinking and writing about the relationships between speed and innovation.  What we've considered so far is that velocity (speed in a specific direction) is what many firms require, as the pace of change accelerates, customers demand more and product lifecycles become shorter.  If speed is necessary, then firms will need more ideas to become products and services much more quickly.  Innovation is a catalyst and a enabler for speed.

What's also interesting is that the factors that block an organization from increasing its speed also block innovation from taking root.  There are three factors we'll examine that stymie a firm from gaining more speed, and that are also barriers to innovation.  Remove or eliminate these barriers and you can increase speed and innovation.

The three barriers are:
  • Lack of clarity about mission and direction
  • Fixed processes that are neither nimble nor agile
  • Internal decision making, attitudes and behaviors that become roadblocks
Let's look at each of these to define why they are barriers to both speed and innovation.

Indefinite mission/direction

There's a gap between what executives attempt to communicate and what their teams hear or understand.  In a recent Cap Gemini survey of executives, over 60% felt that the significant barrier to innovation was a lack of an innovation strategy.  Well, who is responsible for creating and communicating strategy?  If your teams lack clear goals, missions and outcomes, they cannot accelerate to higher internal speeds.  If they lack clear goals and missions for established products and services, how can they possibly attempt to create new products and services, whether they are aligned to existing strategies or not?  Speed is about singular focus and executing against that focus with as much energy and enthusiasm as possible.  When focus or strategy is unclear or poorly communicated, a firm cannot act quickly or decisively, and cannot innovate successfully.

Lack of Competency

Many firms have defined workflows that are timed and tailored to a speed or velocity that reflects what was true in their markets years ago.  While the internal pace is comfortable and well-understood, it no longer reflects what's happening in the real world.  Once a year planning expects that customers will wait for you to fund a new idea on your time schedule.  Slow development processes and poorly equipped innovation teams can't produce as quickly as nimble entrepreneurs.  Your processes are optimized for a market that doesn't exist anymore.  You must innovate the way you create, build and launch to keep time with the market, at a minimum.  Locked into a comfortable, defined business process doesn't help you accelerate, and the existing processes are tuned for efficiency and effectiveness, not innovation.

Internal Barriers

As a firm grows, it codifies the rules, decision making processes, approvals and other activities that grant control to an otherwise unruly process.  While these gates make sense if the issue is control and consistency, they become barriers to speed and innovation.  Further, many firms are organized in a "waterfall" methodology, generating ideas, developing ideas, shifting ideas to product development, then introducing supporting organizations like legal, finance, regulatory and IT, which are overscheduled and overworked.  These teams discover new ideas and products late in the game and are expected to react to the pressure of a new concept while maintaining old decision making processes and rules.  The result is a log jam of new products waiting for the minimal resources and stodgy pace of internal decision making and overworked teams.  If speed and innovation were your goals, you'd never design a process like the ones that exist in most corporations.

 Want to increase your internal clockspeed to match the market?  Want more innovation?  Follow these three steps:
  1. Work with executives to define clear corporate strategies that innovators and product teams can link to.  Make tradeoffs - a firm cannot be a product leader, operationally excellent and have exceptional customer intimacy.  Focus on being really good at one, or possibly two. Chose to be a leader in some areas, and a fast follower in others.
  2. Revise internal processes and build new skills to accelerate your internal clockspeeds.  Seek to cut product development times in half - don't question the logic, just ask "what would it take for us to cut development time in half?"  Then ask the same question about idea development.
  3. Examine every gate, every decision making exercise, every approval.  Do they add value?  Or do they simply block innovation?  Consider your workflows - can you do more in parallel?  Can you borrow ideas from Agile methodologies?  What can you discard that slows your processes while not sacrificing quality?
You simply cannot afford to work at the pace you are working at today, and occasional innovation won't save your bacon.  With increased innovation comes speed, and increased speed will enable innovation.  It's a rare corporate twofer!
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:14 AM 1 comments

Friday, June 01, 2012

Innovation: Strangers in a strange land

One of the issues I've often struggled with when leading innovation projects with clients is the sense that I'm a foreigner, speaking a foreign language and imposing foreign rules.  Often, when working with clients, I have the sense that they are visiting or touring a foreign country called innovation, where they are enjoying the sites, taking in the scenery, but don't plan to learn the language or stay longer than they have to.  It's as if innovation is a place of great beauty, great excitement but great danger constantly lurks at the edges.  Most people are very happy to visit, accomplish a few rudimentary tasks, and then leave again.

It's this unfamiliarity and the sense of being a tourist that makes innovation so strange and different.  We, for the most part, have carved out our own lands, which are settled, tamed, economical and predictable.  Not much happens and when it does we know exactly how to respond.  Our friends and neighbors have the same expectations and speak the same language.  When challenges occur they are reminiscent of problems from the past, and our tool sets allow us to respond intelligently.  We live in artificial worlds of our own making, but they are safe, comfortable and predictable.

Further, we're aware of another world, or perhaps even another set of worlds, just beyond our comfort zone and imagination.  Worlds where people much like us do things in extraordinarily different ways, taking more risks, encountering unimagined obstacles.  Those people seem like astronauts cast out into uncharted space.  We recoil from those challenges and investments.  They aren't safe or predictable, require new knowledge and skills.  But, increasingly, we are forced to enter those worlds to sustain growth and innovation.  So we become innovation tourists, strangers in a strange land.

Like Americans abroad, we expect this new land to conform to our expectations, to deliver on our assumptions.  It's disheartening to learn that to work effectively in this new land we need to learn new tools, adopt new language, embrace different and larger risks.  Our choices are to visit for short periods, returning to a homeland more predictable and safe, or become pioneers or explorers in the new land, adopting local customs, tools and language.  Yet, once you've adopted the new perspectives and behaviors, it can be difficult to go home again.  Perhaps one can only be a resident of either the efficient, effective business environment or a resident of the other worlds of innovation, but not both.  The rules, language, expectations, risk factors, outcomes are so vastly different that few have succeeded in doing both well.  We are either tourists who hire experienced guides to take us safely through the uncharted and unfamiliar space, seeking only to return safely home, or we move into innovation space and adopt the thinking necessary to survive.

And don't kid yourself that you can move into the "innovation space" and tame it, like pioneers of old tamed the American wilderness.  Innovation space isn't static, it doesn't stand still or adopt to our ways of thinking.  It is constantly changing, constantly unpredictable, constantly new.  Only pioneers willing to constantly adapt will thrive.  You can't tame the innovation space, you can only hope to adopt its patterns and logic.  That's why true innovators seem so different from the rest of us.  They are actually residents of another place, visiting our effective, efficient businesses for a short time, bringing their strange ways that are unusual and unfamiliar.  They realize eventually that the nutrients, oxygen and other components that sustain life here are different, and either surrender their citizenship in the more dangerous and fast paced future world to take on the efficient, effective world, or they return to their innovative space, like ET phoning home.  And when they leave we are often relieved in the short run, glad to be rid of people who are constantly reminding us of the incredible potential available.  In the end, though, we regret the departure of the strangers from the innovation space, and seek their return, or at least guides willing to breech the barrier between our safe existence and the potential worlds just beyond our safe frontiers.

Innovators in business are truly strangers in a strange land.  Welcome them, for they are few in number, but have the best capability to take you into the future.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:57 AM 1 comments