Monday, May 07, 2007

Innovation as a discipline

One of the biggest challenges facing innovation teams and managers in many businesses is the sense that innovation is innate and should "happen" without a lot of fanfare or organization. In some sense, this thinking is correct - innovation should be a consistent, sustainable activity. The problem is there's no organized way to accomplish innovation in many firms.

So, most firms create a big kickoff and talk about how important innovation is. They run ideation sessions and brainstorms and congratulate themselves on generating some new ideas. But what happens far too often is that there's no mechanism to consider, evaluate and move those ideas into new product or service development, and even if there is momentum in this regard no one bothered to alert the product or service development teams that a whole flood of new ideas is approaching. So few new ideas get converted into new products or services.

We like to advocate innovation as a discipline, defined, regulated and constantly in action. This effort takes time to implement and to instill within the culture of an organization, but the more deeply the concept penetrates, the greater the chance for success. If innovation is to become a sustainable practice and process, how should it be implemented? Let's look at other sustainable initiatives and processes for clues.

Many firms have implemented Six Sigma programs to identify and fix quality issues and eliminate unnecessary costs. These programs are constantly in work, identifying issues and suggesting corrections. Black Belts are working with process teams to identify the challenges and recommend solutions. These are evaluated and implemented. The Six Sigma teams did not happen overnight - people were identified and trained and the company was educated on the program and encouraged to use this approach to improve. Training, identification of key employees and the ability to implement the recommendations mean that people believe in the Six Sigma process and sustain it.

Look at your sales team and sales pipeline for examples. Sales leads are constantly presented to the firm and sales members qualify and move those opportunities through a pipeline where the opportunities are evaluated and eventually closed or rejected. There's a defined methodology that the sales team uses to move prospects through the sales pipeline, and a clearly identified team and set of goals.

What's consistent about these examples is that they both represent a defined process that people understand and have been trained to use that demonstrates measurable results. When we talk about innovation as a discipline, this is exactly what we mean. Rather than hope that ideas are created and evaluated, create a process and educate people on how it should work. Rather than wait for ideas, create the environment for teams to generate ideas and manage those ideas. Innovate consistently, rather than periodically or when the well runs dry.

Innovation is the initiative most likely to drive new organic growth and differentiation, yet too often there's no definition or process associated with innovation. Innovation can become a discipline in any firm, and when that discipline takes root, great things can happen.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:15 AM


Blogger James Todhunter said...

Hi Jeffrey,

This is an excellent piece. I couldn't agree with you more. The example you use of 6-sigma is also very good. In my experience, the 6-sigma model is very relevant to people wishing to deploy structured innovation programs.

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