Monday, August 29, 2016

Innovation: management versus enablement

I love innovation.  I love all facets of it: the discovery of new needs, the creativity to discover new solutions, the realization of those new ideas as new products and services.  What concerns me sometimes is the way in which we attempt to implement innovation, because we are likely to constraint it at just the time we need the most innovation.

You'll see a lot of talk about "innovation management".  This is not necessarily a wrong idea, but in the wrong hands will severely limit innovation activities and outcomes.  We managers and executives, trained in the school of efficiency and with our MBAs in tow believe we can "manage" anything.  In to some degree that is correct.  We can manage and improve things that are well defined and understood.  To some degree we can even put guardrails around things we cannot fully understand or define.  But the risk we run when we talk about managing innovation, is that we become entranced with the idea of "managing" and not with the idea of "innovation".

In many corporate settings where we've done innovation consulting we see this play out over and over.  Managers and executives want and need stability, repeatability, predictability.  They want the outcomes of exciting, disruptive innovation without the variability and costs associated with what happens in the wild.  As experts in managing things, their first habit is to codify, define, and provide governance and structure to an activity that most don't fully grasp or understand.  Rather than attempt to fully explore the innovation possibilities, managers first attempt to get a handle on what they believe innovation is, and how it should be conducted, managed and governed.

As I've said, this is a very fine knife edge to walk.  Large corporations cannot survive with wild hare ideas sprouting everywhere and little definitive structure or guidance.  They simply don't work that way, and funds and resources don't flow to exercises that reflect those attributes.  But on the other hand, focusing too much on the managing aspect leads to constraints, rules and bureaucracy that will close the aperture for innovation and result in a well-governed, well-defined process that cranks out predictable ideas.  Which sounds something like your product development process, and that's a problem.  Most firms can't get well defined solutions out of their product development process fast enough, much less generate new and interesting ideas quickly enough, yet their first notion is to place the same "management" and overhead on innovation as they do on product development.

Now, this diatribe may sound interesting from a person and team that has argued for years about defining an innovation process.  And that's the other side of the coin.  You need to have just enough defined process in order for people to innovate effectively without creating bureaucracy and limiting exploration and risk.  Since there's exceptionally little commonality about how people generate ideas or shepherd them into new product development cycles, some definition is needed, some skills and tools are required.  Perhaps we should call this "enablement" - we are enabling people to learn new skills, define new processes, explore new needs - rather than "management", which seems like adding overhead without adding benefits. 

It's in our nature as managers, executives, experienced in the ways of business and pounded into our heads as MBAs that we need structure, process, governance, details.  These management attributes limit variability and exploration, and constrain innovation.  While we need just enough of these to be - wait for it - minimally viable for innovation, we also need enough enablement, expansion, divergence to allow people to come up with and explore great ideas.  There's more than enough management attitude in our genes and experiences, and not nearly enough enablement.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:56 AM


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