Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fast innovation often leads to furious outcomes

Today, inspired by the Fast and Furious movies, I thought I'd write about the appropriate speed for innovation.  One doesn't have to have the arms of the Rock, or the brains of Vin Diesel, to see that most innovation is attempted at the wrong speed.  And, much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, there are speeds that are too fast, too slow and "just right".  One more literary allusion and I hit the trifecta!

Speed and its relationship to innovation

What does speed have to do with innovation anyway?  As regular readers of this blog will not doubt remember, there is a market window for every opportunity.  Get to the market too quickly and your great idea or technology will be rejected because no one is ready for it, or the infrastructure doesn't exist.  Enter the market too late and other competitors will have populated the market, leaving only niches or dissatisfied customers for you to attract.  But, get there at the right time, with the right speed, and you can dominate the market. 

Another concept related to speed is the increasing pace of change.  Again, regular readers will recognize this as a common, recurring theme in this blog.  What people don't yet understand is how quickly the pace of technology, and change in general, is increasing.  Product lifecycles are getting shorter, and by extension corporate lifecycles are shrinking.  Expectations from the past lead corporations to believe they can scale up, build a brand and defend the brand, reaping profits for years.  Increasingly, those products and brands experience very short life cycles.  It's definitely time to pick up the pace and learn to operate at speed.

When the speed is too slow

There are a number of factors that limit innovation speed, most important among them a lack of experience or familiarity with tools, a need for perfection and elimination of risk, and long decision cycle times.  Each of these hampers an innovation activity and causes it to move slowly.  When a company management team and corporate culture combines all three of these factors, they simply makes the process sclerotic.  When the team's ability to move quickly is hampered by a lack of skills or experience, outsiders or consultants can speed up the process.  However, almost nothing can speed up decision making or eliminate enough of the risks to allow a project to move more quickly other than the buy-in of executives.  What factors cause your innovation projects to move slowly, if they get started at all?

When the speed is too high

It's rare that you'll find a good team, fully engaged and experienced in innovation tools, with a clear objective and a fully supportive management team.  That is nirvana, and while it is occasionally possible it is highly unlikely that all of these factors fall into place.  If a team doesn't have these factors yet innovates quickly, it is guilty of making unnecessary and improbable assumptions, limiting the scope of its inquiry or simply skipping steps.  All of these factors will result in a project that ends quickly and delivers an inadequate and unacceptable result. Yet it is a fast, speedy project that all executives seem to want, when they complain about the amount of time it takes to innovate, when they want to cut corners and increase cycle time but don't commit enough resources and don't free up the resources to do the work effectively.  Moving too quickly is simply a box checking exercise, to exclaim we completed an innovation project, but end up with products or services that no customers want or need.

When the speed is just right

A good innovation project should move relatively quickly, but not for the reasons you are thinking.  As Fred Brooks pointed out in The Mythical Man-Month, nine men can't make a baby in a month.  Some activities have a reasonable gestation period, no matter how expert the process or the team working on the issue.  What you can do to make a project go more quickly is to adequately define the opportunity or problem (Covey's Sharpen the Saw is relevant here) and provide the right amount of training and process definition, and ensure the people working on the project understand the breadth and depth of exploration that's acceptable and necessary to do the job right.  After all, it's not necessarily the fastest innovation project that wins, but the one that delivers a product or service that meets or exceeds customer needs in a timely fashion.

Remember that many innovation projects are new activities within a corporate setting, so it takes time to build understanding and expertise.  Additionally, a good innovation project requires learning and discovery, which cannot be predicted.  It's rare that anyone, even those of us with deep experience running innovation projects, can fully and accurately predict the length or duration of an innovation project, but there are many reasons to create shortcuts or end an activity too early.

The Fast are Experienced

If I was creating a new movie about innovation, modeled on the Fast and Furious, it would be titled The Fast are Experienced, because it takes innovation experience to know how to work quickly, and when to be patient and let an idea incubate.  Perhaps we'd need The Rock with his bulging muscles and commanding presence to persuade management to leave the team alone when it needs space, and the expertise of Vin Diesel and others to accelerate the team to escape velocity.  But good experience and history tells me that it's not necessarily the first who will win this race, but the ones that cross the finish line with something that matters to customers, can generate profits for the company and is in time for the market to unfold.

Experience matters when it comes to innovation.  Innovation projects need to be unlike the other projects your team does regularly, otherwise they'll create the same result.  You cannot become an expert or gain innovation expertise unless you've completed a number of innovation projects and learned the subtle inflection points and how and when to apply specific tools or methods.  There is no one size fits all, and often not even a one size fits many approach.  Gaining experience and learning when to push, and when to wait, matters.  You can't skip steps in the innovation process and expect a valuable outcome.  If Fred Brooks was right about software development, we can assure you he was even more correct about innovation projects.

Want to move at the best possible innovation speed?  Define a consistent innovation approach or method, train your best people and allow them to gain expertise by participating in a number of innovation activities, so they learn the traps, learn when to speed up and when to sit back and let ideas percolate and incubate.  There's enough stress in an innovation project without having executives stand on top of the team demanding greater speed, or insisting on cutting corners or reducing staff, which is a common occurrence.

You can have fast innovation, which in many cases will lead to furious innovation teams, or you can let your teams gain experience, and then they'll tell you how fast they can innovate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:10 AM


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