Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Creating and Sustaining Innovation Energy

I want to talk today about the energy required to do innovation well - where and when energy is created, why it dissipates and what you can do to sustain it. 

Creating Innovation Energy

Think about the times your organization has the most innovation energy.  Talking about innovation, especially riffing on the "what ifs" is fun.  What if we could introduce a product that made our competition obsolete?  Which of us hasn't had this conversation?  What if we could create a product that allowed me to drop 15 pounds and not expend any energy exercising?  The possibilities are endless, and the enthusiasm we spark when we talk about innovation is infectious.  Pretty soon everyone around you is talking about ideas, solutions, insights to solve wicked problems.  The point I am making is this:  the "potential" energy for innovation exists.  What are you doing to convert it to kinetic, active energy in pursuit of innovation?

Energy is necessary for Work

That's because for all of the talk about innovation, innovation is really about work.  It's about five minutes of dreaming up ideas and 55 minutes of designing, building, deploying ideas and overcoming obstacles along the way, to steal a phrase from Einstein.  Or, to paraphrase another famous inventor and innovator, innovation is often missed because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work.

What's interesting is that most people, and most innovators don't mind work.  In fact good innovators relish a real challenge and understand that a significant amount of work is necessary for innovation success.  Work, however, requires energy, and work that is sustained over a long period of time requires a lot of energy, consistently delivered.  What are the sources of innovation energy after the initial flowering of ideas?  Over the life of an innovation project, where does the energy come from to do the real work of innovation?

In physics we are taught an equation:  work is equal to force times distance.  In the real world, the amount of work is equal to the force (effort and resistance encountered) times the distance (time to completion).  Our work is faced with not only the effort to create new things, but the resistance to new ideas.  Further, we all know that as time increases, risk doesn't simply increase linearly but exponentially.  So we need enough energy to do the work, overcome resistance and sustain effort over the long run.

Where does the energy come from for innovation in this case?  The early excitement quickly dissipates, and innovation work becomes a slog unless the team is constantly re-energized with new energy, new excitement and engagement.  This is often what is missed.  Simply creating a lot of energy at the start doesn't sustain an innovation team, given the work and resistance they'll encounter.  They need to be refreshed and re-energized from time to time.

There's also the energy required to overcome barriers.  Many teams have enough energy to accomplish their goals if there are no cultural or organizational barriers, and we often staff and enable teams as if this were the case.  But where innovation is concerned, there are too many resistors, too many barriers which sap innovation energy and create more work.

Imagine how simple and productive innovation could be if we could harness the energy and enthusiasm of the brainstorming and discussion, with the commitment and dogged determination of true innovators with the ability to remove or eliminate barriers and roadblocks.  That would be a perfect innovation environment:  engaged, committed, energetic team members who are willing to take on the hard, difficult work of innovation, knowing that someone or something will remove any potential barriers or roadblocks that may impede their successful launch of new products and services.  Because I'm here to tell you that no matter what you read about the fickleness of your customer base, internal teams, executive committees and culture kill far more viable ideas than the market could ever hope to reject.

What is the source of innovation energy?

There are several potential sources of innovation energy, and all must be tapped to sustain an innovation team.  The first is the emotional energy and engagement teams feel when starting a significant new opportunity.  This initial burst of energy is important because it launches the team and overcomes initial inertia.  However, like a sugar high that energy is a burst and rarely lasts.  Once the newness wears off and resistance is encountered, innovation becomes like work.  And work requires energy.

The second source of energy is executive involvement and commitment.  In the long dark days of innovation, when the task feels more like a slog than a success, executive commitment and engagement can smooth the way for the team, eliminating barriers and injecting new energy.

The third source of energy is customer feedback and validation of the ideas and concepts.  There's nothing to reinvigorate a team like good feedback and validation from customers - the sense that ideas will matter in peoples' lives.  Testing ideas and obtaining feedback is critical for the success of ideas but also for the engagement and re invigoration of the team.

Source or Drain?

Innovation energy is important to accomplish the work necessary to bring new products and services to market.  So it's important to ask:  is your culture, your management team, your organization a source of innovation energy, or a drain?  Does your organization create and sustain energy for innovation teams, helping them to recharge when they need it most, or does your organization, its culture, decision making, risk avoidance and other characteristics drain energy or worse create barriers that require more energy to complete the task?

If you can create a lot of energy, excitement and engagement in your organization talking about ideas, then you have one third of the challenge overcome from the start.  The next question is:  can your team commit to doing the hard work of innovation?  Gathering trends and customer needs, developing and refining ideas, building and testing prototypes, building and launching new products and services?  Can you sustain the energy of the idea exchange through the hard work necessary to develop an idea?  Finally, can your executive team smooth the way for your work?  Can it remove barriers, add funding and resources, change a doubtful culture?  Is the team willing to risk the launch of new products and services, to disrupt its own or other markets?  If you can build an organization that sustains these three factors, you can sustain innovation.  Finally, can your organization become a place that creates its own innovation energy, rather than a place that drains innovation energy from teams and activities?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:43 AM


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