Like Mordac, the character in the Dilbert cartoon series who prevents people from getting things done with technology, many times I have been Mordac, the preventer of innovation projects. Mordac's job at Dilbert's company is to develop and sustain IT systems. Inevitably, instead of making Dilbert's job easier through technology he makes Dilbert's job more difficult or impossible. This is playing off the idea that many IT departments are roadblocks to new solutions rather than enablers. In their defense, some of the IT projects they block are ill-conceived. Others may seem simple to implement but would be difficult to support. Still others require more or different resources than the IT team possesses. So, sometimes, Mordac the Preventer is right. Of course sometimes the projects he blocks are wrong. Mordac (and your IT organization) occasionally block projects that should be implemented and that would add value. Can we find a parallel between IT projects and innovation projects?
As an innovation consultant, it's my job to help my clients decide which projects make sense for them to pursue. Unfortunately, it's also been my occupation to block innovation projects or to try to prevent them from happening. This is usually because the client has poorly defined goals, inadequate resources or doesn't understand the market or solution they'd need to create. To my great pride, I've helped block, prevent or delay a handful of projects, which I believe saved my clients time and money.
But more important than saving time or money is saving credibility. If a client is just beginning its innovation journey, and lacks innovation experience, doing the project right matters. Kicking off a poorly planned, poorly conceived project that has a high likelihood to end in failure, when the company doesn't have a lot of patience and is very risk adverse will end any future opportunities. Where innovation is concerned, most organizations only get a few chances before the management loses interest and teams lose commitment, or start to believe they simply can't innovate. In these instances it is better to suffer the small failure of stopping an innovation activity prematurely, to recast and replan the activity, than to conduct the activity and have it end poorly.
Here's a recent example, redacted to protect the client. Many of our clients have an "Innovation Week" in which they bring disparate people together to plan new products and design new projects. One client asked us to help plan their Innovation Week event. Since we've conducted other workshops like this, we were glad to oblige. However, as we started to discuss the goals and anticipated outcomes it became clear that the client didn't have clear strategies, couldn't communicate what they wanted to happen in the event and couldn't define the outcomes. We worked diligently with several key sponsors but could not get them on the same page. A few weeks after we started planning everyone realized that the event wouldn't lead to a good outcome and might even frustrate attendees, and turn them away from innovation. So we cancelled the event, and hope to schedule it in 2015, when we have better planning and visibility. While cancelling the event caused a bit of heartburn, it was far better to postpone and create a meaningful event that all the sponsors could back, rather than continue with a half-hearted innovation workshop.
Innovation Creator and Preventor
If you are an internal innovator, it's your job to find the most interesting problems and challenges and try to get your management team to sponsor innovation activities around these. But it's also your job to prevent ill-timed, poorly planned or poorly resourced innovation activities from getting started. I know it's tough to finally get someone excited about innovation, only to become the "wet blanket" that seeks to redirect or slow progress on an potential innovation activity, but treat each one like the only chance you'll get. Eventually you'll want to get the point where killing an innovation activity is easy, a no brainer, and no problem because you have so many going on. But when you only have one, and it's in the spotlight, you need to ensure it's done right.
When to prevent an innovation activity
There are a number of factors that can alert you to the need to slow or even cancel an innovation activity. Those factors include:
- Poorly defined innovation goals. Simply saying that "we need a new product" or "bring me an interesting new idea" is not enough.
- Vague or inadequate commitment of time or resources. "Let's see how this goes before we commit resources" or "Why can't you have some good ideas in just a few days" are two statements that should cause you concern
- Different definitions or opinions about definitions or outcomes.
- Imposing a scope that avoids risk or discovery, which is virtually guaranteed to return a product or service that looks like the existing products or services
- Lack of preparation, training and innovation skill development
- Fear of failure, lack of experimentation