What to control and what to release for innovation success
Perhaps the biggest challenge for many new innovators is understanding that scope and definition matter. Far too many innovation projects start based on a problem or framing that suggests the team should "come up with a new idea". But that new idea doesn't necessarily relate to an existing problem or challenge, and is so loosely scoped that for all intents and purposes the team has a blank slate from which to work.
The challenge here is that most innovation teams don't have deep skills, and expect someone to tell them what the specific need or scope should be. When handed a "white sheet" of paper and told to innovate, with few constraints or boundaries, teams struggle. They struggle because they are never in a situation where the boundaries or scope isn't defined, or the problem or challenge more carefully articulated. In this instance, most innovation teams need more definition about the problem or challenge than they are given. Here's a point where most executives provide too little control, when more is often needed.
Unless your company has a defined workflow or process for innovation, the innovation teams will start "innovating" and will pursue a process that they create from scratch. Typically the management team doesn't want to dictate "how" the work gets done, but in the absence of a defined process or workflow, each innovator and each innovation team develops its own methods. These methods usually start, and often end, with a brainstorming activity. There's no careful consideration of future trends, no customer research, no validation of needs, no evaluation of ideas, no prototyping. In an environment where every process is defined, innovation is undefined as an activity. Again, this is an activity where more definition and control from executives could be vital, but little or none is offered.
This factor is what often limits innovation the most, and with the least intent. Every individual in an organization carries around with them expectations about what the culture will allow: what changes, what disruptions, what decisions. Executives, culture and reward systems constantly reinforce these perspectives, often without explicit intent. Here's a factor that should have far less control, and executives must apply overt and meaningful activity to remove the control.
Innovation teams are governed by what they believe and see reinforced in the business. They clamp down on themselves, limiting their thinking and creativity. Unless executives are actively involved in removing this unintentional control, innovation teams revert to business as usual thinking, resulting in humdrum, incremental ideas. Here's a case where active engagement to remove a control is vital.
Aligned with perspective is the concept of the deliverable. In a product-centric company, the team is very likely to consider product deliverables as the output for innovation, ignoring business model changes, customer experience upgrades, new channels, new services and other innovation possibilities. The core products and the emphasis on products becomes an overriding control on how people think, and how they plan. Plenty of innovation opportunities lie outside the realm of products, but innovation teams can't think broadly or expansively enough. Here's an opportunity for executives to remove the control, welcome solutions that reach beyond new products.
Call it what you will, but everyone involved in innovation will want the work to proceed "perfectly". That is, in one shot, from start to finish, there are no accidents, no mistakes, no new discoveries and no rework. Innovation is expected to perform at the same level of variability and error control as all the other exceptionally well defined processes. The expectation of success and the mirage of control means that ideas must be simplified, knowledge gaps dismissed or overlooked. Teams that have been developed and steeped in process perfection must now either admit challenges and revert to prior steps or pretend that their work is perfect. Here's yet another control that executives can release. They can let the teams know that the result is what matters, not the perfection of the process. They can release the innovation teams from the expectation of perfection in the methods and processes, and tolerate discovery and rework as necessary.
Understanding and Releasing Controls
Note that some of these factors, like Scope and Process, are factors where too little control is provided and more control is needed. In other cases, such as the Potential Solution, too much control may be applied accidentally, and needs to be removed or reframed intentionally. Some controls are overt, such as scope, and others are more intangible. Some controls are intentional, like process perfection, and some are unintentional, like organizational culture and perspectives.
In most cases, executives and teams place too many controls on factors they should free up from control, and fail to place limits or controls on factors that will actually help the team succeed if there are more controls. This dissonance isn't intentional, it merely demonstrates the newness of innovation as a capability and the fact that many people aren't familiar or experienced with successful innovation.
Because innovation teams and their managers are unfamiliar with innovation, they apply two concepts: innovation is creative and artistic, so it shouldn't be "bound" by definitions or process, and the mechanics of innovation should be as error free and as similar to existing, known processes as possible. In the "front end" the teams provide too little definition, but in the workings of innovation they expect it to resemble the process perfection they've come to expect from other activities. This dissonance means that innovation is often poorly defined, with narrow expected outcomes. Further, innovation is expected to work "perfectly" and in harmony with existing thinking and perspectives to deliver a refined new product, when innovation opportunities often exist in many more potential outcomes.
If you are new to innovation
If you are new to innovation, and want to succeed, you might be more successful following this advice: Whatever you think you need to control, release it, and whatever you think should be freed from definition or control, scope it.