Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Starting the innovation fire

I've been thinking, long and hard, about the correct analogy to describe a lot of corporate innovation efforts.  I'm sorry to say that the best analogy I can come up with is a campfire.  I hope you'll stick with me on this, because I think it can be illuminating (couldn't resist the pun).

Most of us who participated in scouts or went to a summer camp where they had a bonfire are familiar with the idea of a campfire. It's a must have for any outdoor event, and rarely complete without graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows.  It's a good place to tell ghost stories or have a sing along.  A fire, once started and with the right fuel, can burn well and hot for hours, and in some cases if not carefully tended can become dangerous.  But I digress...

How corporate innovation is like a campfire

If you think about the basic ingredients required for a campfire, they are relatively basic.  We need some type of fuel, typically small twigs which catch up quickly and larger branches and logs that don't burn as quickly but provide coals and sustain the fire over time.  We also need an ignition source, most typically a match or a lighter.  Some folks also cheat a bit and use an accelerant - gasoline or lighter fluid or "fatwood" which burns more easily and dependably.  Of course good fire etiquette (at least from my scouting days) would suggest that we clear a small patch of land so the fire is easily contained and doesn't spread to the woods.

Now, let's map what's going on in corporate settings to the ingredients for a campfire, to understand what's underway, what's working and what's missing in corporate innovation.

First, there's the desire to have a fire.  Every company wants innovation, so desire isn't always the challenge.

Second is understanding the ingredients.  For a fire this is simple:  ignition, accelerant, fuel.  In a corporate setting, these three factors are also important: ignition (what are the driving needs or burning platforms that require innovation), accelerant (what are the skills and insights that accelerate innovation) and fuel (what are the cultural and human capital capabilities to keep the projects running).  It makes sense to look at each of these in greater detail.


For a fire, ignition is easy.  You need matches, or a lighter, or some other mechanism to create a spark.  Often all you need is a momentary flame to get a good fire going.  The same is true for innovation.  A single executive's need can spark an innovation opportunity.  A significant product line gap or the introduction of a new product by a competitor can spark an innovation need.  Ignition simply isn't the problem, although many corporate innovation activities are ignited by the wrong issues and for the wrong reasons.  The old saying - play with matches and you'll get burned holds true for innovation as well.


As a scout, we always carried a few slivers of "fatwood", typically wood found in the trunks of old pine trees.  Fatwood is a great accelerant because it is loaded with turpentine, catches fire easily and burns hot.  Others might cheat with lighter fluid or gasoline, but just a few bits of fatwood really help accelerate a fire.  In a corporate setting, aspects like innovation tools and knowledge of those tools, past innovation experience, third party consulting help and other factors can accelerate an innovation activity.  At this point in the innovation life cycle, many companies have conducted some training on innovation for their teams, or have access to innovation consultants, so some acceleration can be achieved, but it always works against existing culture, which typically dampens the accelerant.


A good fire starts with small twigs and moves on to consume larger branches and logs.  These burn for a much longer time, making it easier to enjoy the fire and build a good set of coals.  The best wood is dry, not green but dead for some time, preferably hardwoods as pine or soft woods don't burn well.  The worst types of fuel are logs that are wet, or wood that is "green" - that is, just off the tree with sap still in it.  From a corporate innovation perspective, the best fuel is committed teams, working on important and relevant projects, working within a supportive culture.  As these factors mature, success builds on success, much like a good fire builds coals to sustain a fire over time.

Where does the problem lie?

The problems with corporate innovation don't like with ignition, although we could discuss for hours whether the "right" sparks are being used about the right problems.  But that's a discussion about problem or opportunity definition.

The real problems are with accelerants and fuel.  As we've described, there aren't enough accelerants in most corporations (trained people who are familiar with innovation tools and methods and a supportive culture).  In fact most corporate innovation activities look a lot like trying to start a fire in the rain:  it's easy to spark a flame with a lighter or a match, but difficult to get a real fire burning that can be sustained.  Too often the wood is too green or too wet to burn, so the fire simply smokes a bit and dies out.  The same is true for many corporate innovation activities:  easy to start, difficult to really ignite a large fire and far too quickly doused and rarely sustained.

How can we fix this problem?

Good firebuilders lay aside accelerants and prep or age the wood they hope to use in a fire, curing it and drying it to be ready when it is needed.  Likewise, corporations must improve the accelerants (training, process definition and skill building) and build the fuel (culture change and the ability to sustain innovation activities over time through strategic alignment, measures, metrics and building on success) in order to sustain a fire once it is started.  This means making an investment in innovation skills, people and tools before they are needed and keeping the skills up to date.

Today, an awful lot of corporate innovation looks a lot like starting a campfire on a cold, wet day with a good match and poor fuel: easy to start, difficult to build a real fire, and a quick, smoky end that no one wants to be around.  The way to change this is not to focus on the spark or ignition quite so much, but to focus on the accelerants and especially the fuel, which will sustain the fire long after it is burning well.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:38 AM


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