Monday, August 19, 2013

Innovation copy & paste

I read with some interest a good post by Jorge Barba, in which he writes about the difficulties of creating an innovation capability simply by copying what other firms are doing.  He argues that "step by step" recipes often don't work, that you can't simply copy what Google does without also copying the culture that made Google successful.  However, we've since learned that Google is going to abolish much of what we thought made it successful - the 20% time - but that's another topic for another day.

Jorge raises an interesting question for firms that are building innovation capabilities:  what can you copy from others, what are the universal best practices, what do you need to define and develop for yourself?  The question Jorge doesn't ask, but that is equally relevant is:  how much time and effort will it take to copy what can be copied, to develop that which must be developed?

Because if you can't simply copy and paste, which is quick and somewhat painless, that means you must invest and develop, which isn't quick and takes time and money.

What you can copy

Every innovation consultant will argue that their approach or methodology is the best one, and all of them are being a bit disingenuous.  Alex Osborn and his supporters at the Critical Problem Solving Institute developed the basis for what a lot of us preach and practice.  Beyond Osborn's methods there are a range of trend spotting and scenario planning methods, customer insight approaches, intellectual property methodologies and so forth.  You can find the "best" of these and determine which components meet your company's culture, perspective and needs most effectively.

When it comes to tools and methods, you can trust a best practice approach.  That doesn't mean you should follow a prescribed methodology because X company does.  You should implement any tool or methodology in light of the specific goals of your company, the experiences it has, the goals it has.  You should implement tools and processes to "fit" with your organization, but never to hamper those methods and process by forcing them to accept limitations your organization imposes.

What you must develop

If you've run an innovation project using borrowed or copied methods, two issues must have become clear:  how few people really engaged in the process or even understood what was going on, and how much the existing culture rebelled against the imposed methods and processes.  While you can copy tools and to some extent an innovation process, you can't copy and paste the experiences of the people and their relationship to the corporate culture.

For long term, repeated success, you must train your people and potentially recruit new skills in order for innovation to thrive.  You may be successful on occasion with untrained people using unfamiliar tools, but that rarely happens in a high pressure, high exposure project.  Further, those inexperienced people using unfamiliar tools and processes encounter real resistance from a culture attuned to efficiency, not innovation. 

How to develop what you must develop
From a people perspective, there are three actions you can follow:  you can recruit new people with innovation experience to join your team, you can retrain existing people to take on new methods and processes more effectively, and you can change reward structures for both your new people and your existing teams.  Or, you can simply outsource innovation to people who are experts.

From a cultural perspective, there are no shortcuts.  The more work you put into changing the culture, encouraging the organization to innovate, to accept tradeoffs between efficiency and variability, between certainty and ambiguity, between predictability and risk, the more ambidextrous and flexible the organization will become.  Rewards and recognition matter as well.  How people are evaluated, compensated and recognized will shift the culture, as will long term, continued management focus and communication.

What you can't copy and must have

Copying a "best practice" method or set of tools will take only a month or two.  Developing your people and changing a culture can take several years.  Here you begin to see the crux of the problem.  Management teams aren't especially good at long term thinking or committing to long term, slow change projects, especially ones with unpredictable outcomes.  Quick and dirty, aiming for the proverbial "low hanging fruit" will always win out over slow, careful, constant change.  But that slow, careful, constant change is what you can't copy, and must have, for innovation success.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:29 PM


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