Monday, December 06, 2010

The failure of managing radical ideas within existing processes

I've struggled for years to understand why innovation is often stymied by what appears to be poor communication, until a recent incident demonstrated why innovation is so difficult.  It's not just that we need new ideas and the ability to translate ideas into new capabilities, we often need new methods to bring those ideas to reality.  And that becomes the crux of the problem.

Recently I was working with a client, creating new ideas to radically transform a portion of their business.  The executive sponsor was exceptionally happy with our work, and the small team we had pulled together was enthusiastic about the ideas and eager to continue the next steps.  To do so meant bringing in a larger team.  Just before we did so, I asked the executive sponsor to speak with the new members, to convey how important these ideas were and how urgent it is to implement the ideas quickly, and he did so.  That, I felt, checked the box we always focus on called "communication".

To my surprise in the first meeting with the expanded team, the new folks were already talking about how the ideas should be implemented, and how quickly they could be implemented, and how the ideas could be adjusted to fit existing programs and processes.  It was a complete disconnect.  We adjourned the first meeting rather quickly, because we discovered that what the new folks had heard was that they should create a quick success with the new ideas, and they interpreted that to mean that they should use existing processes and methods.  What was communicated, and what was heard, were two radically different things.

The new folks on the team assumed that while the ideas were radical, they could be aligned and softened to work within existing frameworks, projects and processes.  They had already discussed how to change the ideas so that they would fit within some existing project parameters, without realizing that the reason the ideas were so different was that they sought to create an entirely different value proposition.  I realized later that I had failed the senior executive sponsoring the project.  He didn't need to communicate just the value of the ideas and his goals for implementation - he also needed to communicate the fact that the ideas should change as little as possible, and the existing frameworks and processes should change to adapt to the ideas, rather than changing the ideas to adapt to existing processes and thinking.  It wasn't enough to have very compelling ideas that we tried to implement quickly - we also had to implement new methods or processes since trying to force the ideas through existing corporate frameworks and processes meant they would have to be watered down.

This is a classic case of hearing what correct but incomplete communication.  What the new folks on the team heard and interpreted was:  implement these interesting ideas as quickly as possible.  They interpreted that to mean:  do so within the existing processes, frameworks and approval programs that exist today.  What the executive meant was:  implement these ideas as quickly as possible, as close to the form they have now as possible, and rework the existing processes or invent new ones if necessary.

There are at least two good learnings to take away from this:

  1. What we consider good communication is often incomplete communication.  Innovation requires good, timely and complete communication, leaving nothing to be assumed or interpreted.  Whether that is the scope of the effort, the range of ideas desired, the timeframe of the effort or how the ideas should be evaluated and commercialized, everything should be communicated effectively.  And the comprehension of the communication should be demonstrated as well.
  2. People are creatures of habit.  Even when confronted with approved, interesting ideas, most people will revert to existing processes and methods to develop and implement the ideas, or will try to fit the ideas into existing projects or initiatives.  This almost always results in watered down ideas that didn't seem worth the trouble.
Innovation needs more than new, dramatic goals.  Clearly the ideas you generate must create significant change to your clients or customers.  But probably just as importantly, ideas once generated often need new methods and processes to become the great new products and services they were meant to be.  Forcing radical new ideas through existing "business as usual" processes will result in dissatisfaction far too often.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:58 AM


Anonymous John Todor said...

Your post illustrates a major challenge in the innovation process that needs to be taken very seriously.

People who have not been involved in the development of the "new" have little choice that to put it into the framework of the "old". The psychological process is called assimilation. Making what is different similar or to fit an existing psycho-logical model. The alternative is accomodation where the new or innovative is put into the new concept. The only way this happens from a psychological perspective is for the person (people) to become engaged with the ideas, to use mental effort to create for themselves the new logic that fits the new context.

This requires a deliberate process. It can happen as part of a roll out or better yet, is part of innovation process.

John I. Todor, Ph.D.
Alliance for Business Innovation

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with both you and John. I would add, however, I believe at least part of the problem lies with how most of us approach innovation. In my experience most everyone tends to talk about innovation as either applicable to products and, to a lesser degree, services.

Very few seem to talk about or counsel being innovative about process and, dare I say, even things like organization and governance. I would like to see as much creativity applied to how we do what we do as to what we do.

Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford still loom large in the way we view process. Hopefully, the next few decades will see those old paradigms not necessarily put completely to rest, but at least looked at as merely alternatives or historically important information.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would check out this interesting case study on how British Telecom approached creating entirelly new processes to support the collection of breakthrough, radical ideas that delivered trackable ROI.

1:53 PM  
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