Friday, October 31, 2014

Whose job is it, anyway?

In every major corporation today, people are going to work.  They are focused on processing invoices, holding meetings, launching a new marketing campaign.  They are working hard to ensure that the actual results meet the forecasts, and that the spending is equal to or less than the budgets.  These folks have more than enough work to do each day, and on top of that they are constantly in meetings to update their managers on their progress.  What's more, they have families and lives that occasionally conflict with the work day, and work that occasionally interrupts their family life.

On top of this hyperactive work schedule, executives become aware that innovation is vitally important, and somewhat absent from the schedule of work or activities.  What to do?  Why, we'll simply layer on an added expectation that each team create some "innovation" on top of their already busy schedule.   There.  That's done.  But the question arises, "whose job is it to innovate?"

The Bromide and the Reality

As with many issues in life there isn't one easy answer.  In fact there is a range of answers, depending on how serious and how committed the management team is, and in fact many of the answers are correct depending on implementation and strategy.  On one hand you have the answer that "innovation is everyone's job" - that innovation should be a part of the daily routine and everyone should be responsible for generating new ideas.  As my favorite quote from the Incredibles goes:  "when everyone's special then no one is special".

On the other hand it's entirely possible to isolate innovation in very small teams, where they are the "experts".  This can happen in a skunkworks or often in an R&D environment.  The concept is to create almost a "high priesthood" of innovation that the rest of us merely gaze on in wonder.

The concept that "innovation is everyone's job" is what I call the bromide.  A bromide is "A trite and unoriginal idea or remark, typically intended to soothe or placate".  When you hear an executive say "innovation is everyone's job" ask yourself the following questions:  when am I going to get the training I need to do innovation well? What priorities can I set aside to pursue innovation the way it ought to be pursued?  Does the culture support the idea of everyone examining needs and coming up with new ideas?  Of course you've probably already asked these questions and come up with the logical answers:  Not soon, none, and not really.

Innovation can be everyone's job, but that goal requires a significant cultural change.  We have to give people permission to create new ideas, time to experiment and explore, and tools to do this effectively.  We also have to create processes and filters to manage all the ideas that we'll receive if everyone is truly innovating, because we can't possibly pursue them all.  It's entirely possible that everyone can innovate, but not without a lot of change.

On the far opposite end of the spectrum is innovation in the ivory tower.  Small, isolated experts generating new ideas while the rest of the organization merely responds and implements.  There are a number of challenges with this model as well.  First and foremost, isolated experts rarely create ideas that are meaningful and valuable to customers.  They simply fall in love with technologies or their own ideas, rather than understanding and fulfilling customer needs.  Another reason this model fails is in "ownership" of the ideas.  A small team cannot successfully toss ideas over the transom into product development and hope that their ideas will be implemented successfully.  Truly radical ideas require education and sponsorship. 

While it's clear that either of these answers can potentially be true, it should also be clear that neither are ideal.  If "everyone" is responsible for innovation, then eventually no one is truly responsible, and the energy to change a culture to truly enable everyone to be responsible for innovation is far more than most executives are willing to expend.  If small expert teams are responsible for innovation, you will generate good ideas, but rarely implement any of them,due to conflicts between the innovation teams and the rest of the business.

What's missing from both of these extremes is ownership and leadership.  Innovation requires teams to do new things and do them differently, while still maintaining the status quo products and processes.  It requires the desire to dig deeply into new ideas while still understanding and managing existing products and services.  It requires experimentation and investigation while fully understanding how to cross the bridge from idea to product development, and product development to successful launch.  Someone or some teams need to be held accountable for innovation.

The people who should be held accountable and responsible for innovation - the people whose job it is - are mid and senior level managers who lead lines of business, who lead product groups or product teams.  Unless and until these folks are held accountable, and become if not experts at least champions for innovation, there will be little real output or outcome.

Once we understand who is accountable for innovation outcomes, then we can begin to decide how to allocate the work of innovation, how to establish priorities, how to decide who gets the innovation training and how their time and focus will be reallocated.  

Saying that it's everyone's job dilutes the responsibility and leave no clear authority.  Placing all innovation in an expert team risks isolation and estrangement.  If executives want innovation, they need to place the responsibility where it belongs, on their management team.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:36 AM


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