Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In the beginning of innovation

I received an email from a colleague and prospective client recently, letting me know that a lot of his hard work on preparing the ground for innovation within his company seemed to be paying off.  A lot of long, lonely toil to advocate for innovation was finally being accepted.  Executives were starting to recognize the need for innovation and begin to pay attention to his presentations and advocacy.  There's nothing like the feeling when a long period of being a lone voice crying out in the wilderness finally begins to pay off.

But, like the proverbial dog that catches the car, the next reaction is:  now what?  Now that people within your organization buy into the fact that innovation is important, what should they do next?  What happens most frequently is that innovation moves from being important but not urgent, to being both urgent and important.  And when something becomes "urgent" in an organization, there's a mass rush to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible, as if innovation is something that can be fixed with an "all hands on deck" mentality for a couple of weeks.  This is, in fact, the worst way to go about introducing and inculcating an innovation capability in an organization.  Just like the development and cultivation of the need over time was slow and careful, the implementation and rollout should be the same.

So, what's the plan of action?  How can a firm with little innovation experience or internal capability define and rollout innovation?  Perhaps the best first activity is for senior executives to simply define what they think innovation is, and what it is for.  Often, in the "all hands on deck" mode, we simply skip past the definition and purpose.  Each executive, business line or geography adopts a meaning or purpose for innovation for itself, and soon we have a mishmash of meanings, definitions, investments and tools, all purporting to be "innovative" and none in synch or alignment.

Innovation is a tool, nothing more.  It should work in support of your company's goals, especially in terms of growth, differentiation, new product development and profitability.  Additionally it can help you disrupt adjacent markets or enter completely new markets.  What is innovation, and what is it for?  How much change and disruption do we want to create?

The next consideration should be:  what barriers currently exist to doing good innovation, and how do we overcome them?  If you aren't innovating now, there are reasons why not.  They may be monetary (no money for innovation) or skill based or risk based or culturally based issues.  Until and unless you identify these and decide how to remove the barriers or overcome them, all the good innovation intentions are worthless because every innovation activity will end in something less than success.  Executives need to be part of this discussion, because they created or sustained the barriers and only they can successfully change or remove them.

Once you have a good definition and have started removing the barriers, we'd recommend talking about and defining "how" you want to innovate.  There are literally thousands of innovation processes, capabilities, tools and methods.  Do you want to rely on external consultants or do you want to bring the capabilities "in house"?  Do you want a "free for all" where every line of business or product group defines its own innovation methodology, or do you want a common central methodology?  We advocate for the latter in both cases, but there's not an answer that necessarily wrong.  You just need to understand how decisions impact your ability to innovate and your capability to deliver on the innovation and strategic goals.

Now that you've got a good foundation, it's time to set some expectations.  Earlier we asked to eliminate the "all hands on deck" thinking and the quick rush to success.  Innovation defines an activity from recognizing an opportunity or need through to successful uptake of new products or services by consumers.  That timeframe may span years, even if your ability to generate ideas takes only a few days.  Recognize and set expectations that innovation isn't necessarily fast, but can be very powerful.  Without these expectation setting activities you'll start off with great confidence but may fail to deliver within unrealistic timeframes, and you don't get many second chances to start an innovation initiative.

Finally, work with some really committed senior executives who want to do innovation right.  When the CEO accepts that innovation is important, every executive will want to complete a project, but some will treat it as window dressing, or won't provide the appropriate resources or allow enough time commitment.  Some executives will be genuine in their commitment and understand the value and importance of innovation to their long term success.  Choosing your first projects wisely will make a lot of difference.

There's plenty more to say about beginning an innovation competency, but I'll leave it here for now.  The most important things to remember are:
  • Define what innovation is, and what it is "for"
  • Identify gaps or barriers that will resist innovation and work on removing them before or during your first innovation activities or projects
  • Define "how" you want to do innovation - tools, methods and partners.  Build a set of skills and processes before rushing in
  • Take your time!  Don't rush into innovation, but build competence and capability
  • Work with executives and senior managers who are committed and understand the investment, especially on early innovation projects.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:32 AM


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