Thursday, January 24, 2013

Innovation Ignition

I read a lot about innovation, and I'm constantly amused by the articles that talk about "kick starting" innovation.  If there is one activity that is resistant to forward motion based on one quick action like a kick start, it's innovation.  What people who advocate "kick starting" innovation don't understand is the analogy, and the effort involved before the fact.

Kick starting refers to the act of starting a motorcycle, using a "kick starter" to ignite the engine.  If you've ever had a motorcycle with a kick starter, you'll understand how much energy it takes to kick start a motorcycle, and how finicky the engines can be.  Further, you'll know how much work it takes to get a motorcycle ready to kick start - the priming, for example.  People talk about "kick starting" when I think they really mean electronic ignition.  Simply flick the switch and go.  But this brings us to a larger point about getting innovation capabilities starting and working effectively.

What's the right innovation ignition

If we can stipulate that "kick starting" is possibly the wrong metaphor for starting innovation activities, what is the right concept and approach for starting an innovation program or activity?  Other "ignition" metaphors immediately spring to mind.  Perhaps the most iconic metaphor for ignition is Cape Canaveral, where rockets take off bound for space.  We've all seen the reverse countdown "3..2..1..ignition...liftoff".  But that kind of ignition is too high profile, too rare and implies too much risk.  If our innovation ignition looked like Cape Canaveral, innovation would only take place periodically, after massive investments to reduce uncertainty and risk, and would be an exceptionally high profile event.  Whereas "kickstarting' innovation implies starting quickly from a standstill, anywhere and all the time.  In that regard, kickstarting is a more effective metaphor, but we have to understand the work that proceeds the kick start to enable it to occur.

Another ignition metaphor is in your automobile.  We are all familiar with inserting the key in the ignition, turning the key, perhaps giving the car a little gas, and starting the engine.  This kind of ignition is regular, repeatable, hopefully trustworthy, without a lot of drama.  If you have a reliable car, the ignition is almost an afterthought, because the car is well-tuned, the ignition switch and starter are reliable. 

What it takes to ignite an innovation project

Note that much of the discussion about ignition has focused on igniting and starting an engine.  Engines are also good metaphors.  Physical engines that are well-tuned and maintained run effectively and generate a lot of power or forward motion.  To perform innovation effectively, we need well-tuned innovation "engines" in our organizations, engines that are comprised of people, who know what to do, processes that define how to accomplish innovation tasks, and cultures that support and sustain innovation.  Those engines also need to eliminate or at least overcome initial inertia - the desire of the business to continue doing what it does best, rather than to pursue innovation, recognizing the effort involved in the change and uncertainty necessary to accomplish innovation goals.  A well-tuned innovation engine contains people who are ready and willing to do new, interesting things, a methodology that's well understood, a carefully designed scope with goals that support strategic outcomes and a culture that has dramatically reduced the power of inertia.  Innovators and cultures can prime this engine by focusing on recognition and reward systems, and creating a powerful rationale for innovation, a "burning platform" for change and renewal.  If these factors are in place, the metaphor of the electronic ignition makes sense.

Kick starting and Cape Canaveral

If, on the other hand, you have a poorly maintained or inadequate innovation engine, with significant inertia or no recognition and reward priming, or no burning platform, your only ignition choice may be to kick start - that is, apply an overwhelming force to a recalcitrant engine, exerting a lot of physical force and executive will to start the engine, or treat the ignition as as showpiece of man's accomplishments, Cape Canaveral style.  Both of these ignition types ignore to some extent the tuning and priming, and expect the engine to simply obey the will of the executive who attempts to start the engine.  Sheer force or high stakes, show piece ignition won't start an engine that hasn't been maintained and tuned, and may cause backfires or worse.  What many executives fail to realize about innovation is that the magic is in building the engine, developing the people and processes, maintaining the engine, training and reinforcing capabilities, and in priming the engine by thinking about culture and burning platforms.  It's not the ignition that matters, so much as the work that went before it.

You can choose any ignition activity I've outlined above, or perhaps others.  In fact to a great extent the ignition method doesn't matter.  Ignition is easy when the engine is tuned, and difficult when it isn't.  And, to compound the problem, ignition seems to become ever more difficult the more often you try and fail.  That's true for physical engines as well as metaphorical innovation engines.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:40 AM


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