Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Book Review: The Other Side of Innovation

As a consultant who believes the emphasis on idea generation is wildly overblown, and that there is far too little focus on idea execution, I was glad to hear that VJ Govindarajan and Chris Trimble were developing a book focused on "solving the execution challenge".  Frankly, all the flash and sizzle of trend spotting, understanding customer needs and idea generation is interesting, but it's in the idea management, evaluation, selection, prototyping and commercialization where all the heavy lifting gets done, and the real value added.

I've really struggled to wrap my head around The Other Side of Innovation.  What can you say about a book that is correct in all its recommendations yet doesn't seem to add anything new to the discussion.  Everything that the authors talk about is absolutely correct, and perhaps needs to be rehashed again and again.

In the introduction the authors use a mountain climbing metaphor to think about the focus on the exciting "summitting" but point out that achieving the summit is only half the job.  What's left is the less interesting but equally important dismount.  Similarly, innovation requires both the generation of ideas and the evaluation and implementation of ideas, with implementation usually receiving the short shrift.  This assertion is absolutely correct, but is it new?  Implementation, whether it is focused on new ideas or an update to an existing product or service, is always the "hard part".  The authors pursue a consistent definition of innovation, looking at several different models:
  • innovation = ideas + execution
  • innovation = ideas + motivation
  • innovation = ideas + process
But they don't seem to have a definitive answer.  Again, interesting, but does this add to the conversation?

Next, the authors note that there are two kinds of "teams" in most firms.  The Performance Engine, which is the portion of the business focused on the day to day execution of the business - creating products, shipping products, etc.  This is the portion focused on earning profits, doing things consistently and efficiently.  In many organizations, an innovation team will be formed.  The authors call this the Dedicated Team, and they note that many of the things the Dedicated Team does is in direct conflict with the Performance Engine.  The Innovation Team talks about "breaking all the rules" which "sounds like breaking the Performance Engine".  There is direct conflict between the goals and expectations of the two teams.  Again, this is 100% correct but not a new observation.  Anyone who has created a new project and attempted significant change within an organization with a strong executional culture knows about this conflict.

Having convinced the reader, and themselves, that innovation is different from standard operations, the authors then divide the rest of the book into two sections:  building a team and running an disciplined experiment.

In the section on building a team, the authors examine the needs and requirements of the Dedicated Team (the people who are full time on an innovation effort) and the relationship between those people and Shared Staff (and yes, the authors capitalize all of these teams, as if they are new or different).  The authors talk about the dilemma an organization faces - to continue efficient operations while managing the possibilities and distractions of an innovation project.  Their conclusions:
  • Because ongoing operations are repeatable, while innovation is nonroutine, innovation leaders must think very differently about organizing
  • Because ongoing operations are predictable, while innovation is uncertain, innovation leaders must think very differently about planning
The authors provide descriptions as well about how to decide what work belongs in a Dedicated Team and what work can be accomplished in Shared Services.  They also identify a number of "traps" when building an innovation team:
  • Having a bias for insiders.  Recommendation:  hire more outside people
  • Adopting existing definitions for roles.  Recommendation:  new titles and new innovation space
  • Reinforcing the dominance of the Performance Engine.  
  • Assessing performance based on established metrics.  Recommendation:  new metrics
  • Failing to create a distinct culture.  Recommendation:  Choose the best aspects of the culture.
  • Using existing processes.  Recomendation:  Invent new processes
  • Succumbing to conformity.
Finally, in the first section, the authors talk about managing the relationship (partnership) between the innovation effort and the Perfomance Engine.  They say:
"..the Performance Engine has more power than you do.  It is larger.  Not only that, it has the stronger case for spending resources.  Its arguments are more quantifiable, with shorter-term and more predictable returns on investment.  You, on the other hand, can do no better than promise the possibility of a big, long-term payoff."

That, again, is 100% accurate and fairly obvious, as are the proscriptions the authors make to solve that dilemma.

Section Two of the book argues that one of the challenges of innovation is that creating a new product or service should be thought of, and managed like, a scientific experiment.  The authors go so far as to break this into three sections:  formalize the experiment, break down the hypothesis and seek the truth.  This, again is correct but perhaps overly emphasized, as we've found that planned "experiments" using rapid prototyping that engage prospects and are conducted in an iterative fashion are exceptionally valuable.

Strangely, I found the most valuable contribution of the book to reside in the conclusion, where the authors address the attributes of a good innovation leader, what they call a "supervising executive".  They state that the individual must possess four attributes:  must be able to get the initiative off to a good start, must monitor interactions with the Performance Engine, stay closely engaged in the learning process and finally, shape the initiative's endgame.  To accomplish these goals and to innovate successfully, the authors argue that the "supervising executive" must be:  1) powerful 2) broadly experienced and 3) in a position to serve the long-term interests of the company as a whole.  Note that they don't think you should assign the role to just anyone - but someone who has respect and power across the organization, who has a "breadth" of experience.  They prefer people who have experience preferably in several business units if not in several markets or industries.

The last part of the conclusion reviews what seems almost de riguer for most innovation books - a debunking of a list of innovation myths.  Scott Berkun did this better in his Myths of Innovation.

Strangely, while the book addresses many topics that are necessary, it skims over items we've found to be exceptionally important in idea execution.  Several that come to mind that aren't discussed in any detail include:
  • Defining and publishing an innovation process that describes how ideas will be evaluated
  • Defining and publishing a set of evaluation criteria so people understand how ideas will be evaluated and the critical criteria
  • The importance of rapid prototyping and active customer engagement in this effort
  • How to select the best people for idea execution
  • What skills an idea execution team needs and how to train them effectively
  • How to transition an idea from a Dedicated Team to a product or service development team
These are all critical factors in the execution phase of an idea, yet are brushed over or not mentioned in the book.

As I said earlier, this book was a real struggle for me.  For what the authors decide to focus on, the book is 100% accurate but doesn't seem to break any new ground.  Yet there are many factors within the idea execution phase that the authors either ignored or chose not to focus on, which seems strange, and they overly emphasize the importance and commitment to experiments.

I'm sure this book will take its place on the shelf with many other books about innovation.  It is true that there are far fewer books about execution, so that in itself may propel this book to increased popularity, but I'd have to argue that books like Robert Tucker's Driving Growth through Innovation or Davila and Shelton's Making Innovation Work are just as good. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM


Blogger Steve said...

I enjoyed your review of the book. I've read it myself. Personally I found the premise compelling. They've distilled the methods presented from actual innovation projects within several different companies over the past 10 years. The descriptions of what worked did feel pedestrian. But I valued the fact that this was because they were presenting facts of successful (or not successful) innovation efforts without bias.

It didn't seem that they attempted to present any new methods, only what they've seen work.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Tim Kastelle said...

"What can you say about a book that is correct in all its recommendations yet doesn't seem to add anything new to the discussion."

That's a perfect summary Jeffrey. I've really struggled with this book. It seems like it should be great, but it just doesn't click with me for some reason. On the other hand, I quite like Vijay Govindarajan's videos explaining the concepts from the book, so maybe it is a style issue?

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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