Monday, September 29, 2014

Innovation should change your perspective

I've been thinking a lot about innovation lately.  Well, I guess I've been thinking about innovation for over a decade, but for some reason the thinking has migrated from operational to philosophical.  I've long wondered why innovation is considered a transactional activity rather than a engaging philosophy or "way of life".  Too many people view innovation as something to do only in emergencies, when a competitor steals a march and wins new customers or introduces a new product.  Otherwise it's steady on, life as usual, and ignoring or avoiding innovation.  I think some of focus on the everyday is brought about by rewards and recognition, some based on the emphasis we place on productivity and efficiency, and some of the perspective is caused by the way we look at innovation, as a transactional, occasional opportunity rather than a way of thinking or living.

Is innovation an interrupter or a way of life?

I was thinking about this recently because I had one of those "shower" moments.  It happens I wasn't actually in the shower - I think I was mowing my grass.  But I had one of those minor epiphanies.  It went something like this.  Why aren't we more concerned about the role our companies, our solutions and our products play in consumer's lives, rather than the jobs we can do or the needs we fill?  It's almost another Maslow's hierarchy, I thought:  needs and jobs versus roles.  The best analogy I can come up with is the difference between a hammer and a carpenter.  A hammer helps me do one or a handful of "jobs".  That hammer can be replaced with others tools as situations warrant, and if the hammer is superseded by another device, the hammer is just an outdated tool. However, a carpenter has a vital role, offering broader solutions and doing more than filling in for just one job.  A carpenter has a role to fill with me, creating better solutions, and if I build a relationship with that carpenter, he or she may create a role that sticks with me for a very long time.

We innovators talk about customer "needs" to fill, or using Christensen's philosophy, "jobs to be done".  But I think we should be thinking about how we become indispensable in the ROLES that we fill in our customers' lives.

But this requires a new philosophy

Is innovation meant to create new products or services, to fill unmet needs, or to help spot and suggestion solutions that drive to larger value propositions?  The answer is yes to all three questions.  The real question is:  what is our philosophy about working with customers, and how we leverage innovation to drive more value.  The vast majority of firms doing "innovation" today are trying to discover new products that solve a customer need.  As soon as the customer has solved that need, another need will emerge that we and others will seek to satisfy.  You get a little credit for solving a need, but like a tool in the toolbox you'll need to prove your value proposition all over again when the next need arises.  However, if you have a vital ROLE in the customers' lives, you don't have to compete with the occasional tools.  But to take a vital role in a customer's life, you've got to do more than satisfy one need, and you've got to migrate with the customer, or create solutions on a consistent basis even before the customer is aware of the need.  This suggests continuous innovation - innovation as a way of life, rather than an occasional interruption from the everyday.

Innovation as a "way of life"

What would it look like if innovation was a "way of life" in your organization, rather than something strange and unusual that is thrust upon the organization periodically?  Rather than resist innovation, it's unusual tools and methods, your teams would gladly embrace innovation activities.  They'd be comfortable using the tools and methods, and understand the rationale and scope of effort.  They wouldn't see innovation as a disrupter of regular processes, but a "way of life" and "how we do things around here".  This would mean, for many companies, a rethinking of the culture and perspectives that people have about their work, and their skills.

Clearly we'd need to understand how quickly innovation is occurring in our target segments and markets, and we'd need to match or even innovation at a slightly faster pace, constantly evolving but also anticipating the sudden forks in the road or disruptions that require an entirely new product or service.  We'd also have to recognize that innovation is more broadly based than we like to admit, and we'd create new channels, new customer experiences, new business models and other solutions as readily as we create new products. 

3 Philosophies on Innovation
What's your team's philosophy on innovation?  There are really only a couple of answers.  First and worst, that innovation is risky and someone else should do it.  We're "fast followers".  Abandon hope, all ye with this philosophy.

Second, and somewhere in the middle, is the recognition that innovation is important, but encounters resistance because it interrupts a really nice operating rhythm.  We know we need to innovate, but gosh darn it we can't find the time, and only innovate in emergencies. 

Third, and frankly few firms are here yet, is a philosophical leap.  We view innovation as a "way of life" and our teams have adopted this perspective.  They believe that innovation is important, and is at least as important as good operating rhythm.  We want to innovate consistently and take on an important role in our customers' lives, not just settle for solving occasional needs or jobs.

If you buy into this philosophical change, your next question should be:  OK, how does a leopard change its spots?  How do we change the way our folks think about innovation?  How do we adopt this idea of innovation as a way of life? 

The simplest answer is:  it's complicated.  Not because it's necessarily difficult, but because it takes a long time.  The message need to come from the top and be constantly reinforced.  People need to see resources and dollars flowing to projects and activities based on this philosophy, and they need to see that over time, and in every corner of the business.  You can't expect to change the dominant philosophy with one project, in one small corner of the business, while everyone else ignores the activity or pretends it isn't happening. 

I've said it before but it bears repeating.  Either innovation changes you, or you change innovation.  The latter outcome dominates and causes so much of the grief that innovators feel.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:08 PM


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