Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wanted: Innovation Leaders

Sometimes I think that many firms should place an ad in the employment pages that says: Wanted: Innovation Leaders. Must be visionary, tough, well-connected and willing to risk it all.

I was reading a post from Drew Boyd (see his Innovation in Practice blog) about academic research into what competencies are important in innovation practitioners and innovation leaders. Drew, and the academics and research he cites, are far more eloquent than I can be. However, the lack of eloquence has never slowed me from climbing up on the soapbox.

Any firm that decides to build a consistent, sustainable innovation capability needs senior executive commitment and funding. That goes without saying. But the innovation initiative needs a strong, determined leader who can demonstrate the following four skills or competencies:

  1. Vision
  2. Commitment
  3. Fearlessness
  4. Excellent communication
A person lacking in one or two of these competencies might be able to compensate with the addition of a sidekick or team mate who can bring that specific skill to the table. Let's drill into each to determine why they are important.

Vision: The innovation team leader will recruit people to his team in an uncertain climate to do some fairly risky things. She needs to be able to communicate her vision for innovation capabilities and how that aligns to the senior management team's needs and strategies.

Commitment: Sorry, part-timers need not apply. If your innovation team leader is part-time, how can she convince people to join her team and make a big commitment. They'll all have one foot in the innovation team and one foot firmly planted in their safe, comfortable existing roles. An innovation leader trying to start a challenging new process that probably runs counter to organization culture can't succeed on a part-time basis.

Fearlessness: You can't succeed when innovation trying not to fail. Too many innovation programs seek very simple, very safe ideas to generate and implement. That's not the point. We've already got Black belts and continuous improvement programs and product roadmaps. We need some risk and danger. The leader needs to be able to stick her neck out and ask some crazy questions, cannibalize existing products and overturn markets, or the end result will be more of the same.

Communication: The innovation leader will recruit full time and part time people to a completely new task, create new processes and methods and generate ideas that will hopefully threaten existing products and services. Based on that description, don't you think they need great communication skills? This means both the skills to speak to the executives as well as to inform the team and the general population.

If your team is forming, or you are considering building an innovation program, now is a good time to write the job description of the innovation leader. Part Gary Cooper, Part Dr. Phil and fully committed to success.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:46 AM 5 comments

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Does your innovation program have legs?

I was talking with an innovation practitioner in a firm recently and he admitted that if he were "hit by a bus" or left the organization, that action would probably effectively end the innovation effort in his firm. His organization's innovation efforts don't have deep roots, or perhaps the program does have legs, unfortunately they are attached to the main idea champion.

Right now, in a lot of organizations, I suspect that this is a common occurrence. Innovation is important but often not "urgent", and so it has been located in one small segment of the business usually supported by people who are very excited and enthusiastic about doing innovation, but beyond that small team there is little cultural alignment to innovation and little investment or adoption of the concepts or processes. This isn't really an indictment of most organizations; innovation simply hasn't been a focus all that long and in many cases hasn't built a clear value proposition, so many individuals and firms still have a "wait and see" approach.

When we talk to clients, we ask them whether they want an innovation "project" or an innovation capability or program. The distinction is that a project is a discrete activity with a defined end date that may or may not be repeated, whereas a capability or program is meant to be a continuous process. What makes the difference between a project and a capability or program is what we call "innovation infrastructure" - changes to the culture, the compensation, the rewards and recognition, how people are evaluated and the communication necessary to ensure everyone is on board and understands the priorities. Anyone, anywhere can run an innovation project without changing the culture or how people are evaluated. All I have to do is generate some ideas and evaluate them using some criteria and hopefully implement one. But that doesn't mean I can do it again successfully, or that anyone else in the firm can leverage what I've done.

Another indication of the difference between a project and a capability is whether or not you can eliminate a major champion of innovation and have the process continue. So, if the innovation sponsor or leader in your business gets hit by a bus or decides to leave and take a new job, will the innovation program continue or come crashing to a halt? If the innovation focus is systemic, you may suffer a hiccup or two and carry on. If the innovation initiative lacks corporate buy-in and roots, then perhaps your innovation program does have two legs and just walked out the door.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:51 PM 2 comments

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nothing to lose

I was thinking over my well-deserved vacation that too often the things that we take the most pride in are often the things that hold us back or cement us in our current state. Janis Joplin, and probably a lot of other authors and artists before her put it best when she said "when you've got nothing, you've got nothing left to lose".

What made me think about this is the difficulty a number of our clients have when trying to innovate. Most firms desperately want new products, new services and new business models, but they also want to protect their existing infrastructure and offerings, so what happens is that there's really only two options - incremental innovation around the existing products or services, or the introduction of products and services so unlike anything that exists in the current portfolio that the firm has little ability to create and deliver it effectively. Since they believe there's something to lose, the firms have a hard time innovating.

I was talking with a client recently who said he'd like to structure a team within his organization that would examine the best opportunities and bring new ideas to the table "regardless of the existing investments" and products. In other words, his "dream team" would start with very few expectations about maintaining the status quo, and could potentially create products and services that might disrupt the existing offerings or perhaps cannibalize them. Only then, he felt, would his team have the freedom to think about the best opportunities.

Cortes is famous for burning his boats when he arrived in Latin America. He offered himself and his men no option other than to proceed on his quest. I think too often in many businesses we ask people to innovate - to explore new possibilities - but we saddle them with too many restrictions, too much baggage, and offer them a way out through very incremental innovation. Most innovation teams need to be led by people who are willing to shed the baggage and burn the boats if they want to be successful. Yes, it may cause some short term pain, but the ability to operate as if there's nothing to lose can be quite liberating, and will open up new opportunities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:55 AM 5 comments