Monday, July 18, 2016

When no one wants to innovate

Over the last few weeks we've taken calls from several potential clients, all of whom seem to have an unusual problem.  An executive or even the CEO has asked their teams for innovative new ideas and solutions, offered support and promised rewards, but after several weeks of communicating this new approach, no new ideas are forthcoming.  After puzzling over the issue for a week or two, we get a call.

The conversations go something like this:  "We've told our folks we need more innovation.  We've promised to reward them for their ideas.  We communicated this through email or other means.  Yet here we are, four or five weeks into an innovation program, and we aren't getting any ideas.  What's going on?"  And we talk to them about past innovation efforts, to discover that this often isn't the first time that executives have asked for ideas.  In doing the autopsy of past innovation efforts it's often clear that while executives asked for ideas, they didn't really value them or consider them, didn't fund the work or implement ideas.  So, when people refuse to play the same game again - even though the management has changed - people are perplexed.  Why won't people innovate when we tell them we need it?  There are at least eight items to investigate to understand what's going on:

1.  Has this request been made before, and what happened when people presented ideas?  Companies are like elephants:  they are large, resist change and have long memories.  If someone has asked for ideas before but didn't follow through, the amount of investment and communication the next time is much higher.  How often has this request and then ignore cycle played out?  How jaded and jilted are the people you are asking to submit ideas?

2.  Ideas about what, exactly?  When you ask for innovative ideas, are you helping to define the scope and potential outcome?  People have ideas but want to solve problems that matter to them or their business.  If you ask for ideas, ask for them in specific areas of the business, either to drive new revenue or dramatically cut costs.  People are already implementing dozens of small, incremental ideas every day.  In these cases, it's typically true that they will rally around more disruptive idea generation, since they do incremental a lot.  But you've got to define that for them.

3.  When should they focus on this?  People are busy - at work, and away from work.  When will they find the time to innovate?  Will you relieve them from some of the pressures of their day jobs?  There's often not a lot of slack time in their personal lives, so if you simply layer on another "important" task on top of what they are already doing at work and in their personal lives, only what gets measured and evaluated will get done.

4.  The follow on to item 3 then is:  What are you evaluating, measuring and rewarding?  Most people move up the ladder and get rewarded based on a set criteria in the evaluation process.  If they take time away from their regular jobs to work on innovation, what happens to their evaluation if their regular job isn't completed effectively?  Putting out a reward for innovation isn't compelling because it's a one time thing.  Their evaluations will cover a full year and will have lasting impact on their progression, roles and future compensation.  No one is going to risk the longer term evaluations for a risky, potential one time gain.

5.  Who can they work with?  If innovation is important, and often demands a cross-functional team of people who know what they are doing, how does Tom innovate when he needs Sally and Jim's insights and coaching, when Sally and Jim aren't interested in working on new stuff?  Clearly, to really accelerate innovation, Tom needs Sally and Jim to be about as committed and available as he is, otherwise Tom is the Lone Ranger of Innovation, and his ideas aren't going anywhere fast.  You can't simply inspire the individuals, you have to equip and prepare the teams and experts who will be necessary to support innovation.

6.  What methods or processes should they follow?  How will they prove their idea to management?  People are good at day to day work because they follow existing processes and know what their managers and executives expect when they propose new projects or products.  But all that work happens within expected and defined confines.  Once you do innovation, especially disruptive or new innovation, you work outside the confines, typically using unusual or new tools and creating new solutions.  How do the innovators become adept at the new tools?  What methods do they use to present ideas to management?  How do they validate and justify new ideas so that executives support them and agree?

7.  Innovation isn't free.  The innovators can work all day at no cost (except their compensation) to create and draft ideas.  But at some point they are going to need to prototype their ideas, perhaps acquiring new technologies or working with experts to ensure their ideas make sense.  Then they are going to need to test their ideas with customers to get feedback (hopefully after they worked with customers to understand needs).  All of these actions require money - in order to identify needs, built solutions and validate with potential buyers.  What funds are you making available?

8.  What happens if we try and fail?  What if the ideas aren't interesting?  Was the effort put into innovation for naught, or worse a distraction from my regular job?  What if the ideas are good but don't align to what the business wants or management expects?  While people want to innovate, they will shy away from attempting new or risky actions that aren't clearly supported.

Now, if you've considered all of these topics and have fully addressed each one, and no one on your team innovates, you've got the right to go hire some new staff.  But in our experience, most managers and executives who ask their teams to innovate fail to consider the motivations, past experiences and lack of knowledge and tools. These gaps lead to little enthusiasm for innovation and at best a small trickle of incremental ideas.  People want to innovate but they instinctively understand the challenges and the costs. Being rational actors, they weight the costs and the potential benefits, and when the scale suggests that innovation is risky, they avoid doing even what they really want to do.  It's up to managers and executives to balance the risk/reward scale.

This is especially true if the innovation ask seems like a "one off" or a flavor of the month.  While many executives and managers understand that innovation is important, it often seems like a flash in the pan request that will soon be forgotten because it is so different from what people are asked to do every day.

If it seems that no one wants to innovate, it's quite likely that there are simply no incentives, no methodologies or tools, not cohesive groups and no shared definitions.  If this sounds like a job for leaders to tackle - you are correct.  Innovation can only happen where good leadership is actively engaged, defining the scope, providing the tools and means and supporting the experiments. 

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:43 AM


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