Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's remarkable about innovation

Like many of you I participate in the social media world.  That world has opened up new relationships and new sources of information for me that were completely unexpected.  I've learned a lot from individuals on Twitter and Facebook and Linkedin, and I've become a real believer in the use of social media to support innovation.

I was following a Tweet chat recently led by Boris Pluskowski in his new role at Spigit.  Boris was interviewing the head of Allstate's innovation program, who was talking about how the folks at Allstate deployed their innovation capabilities.  Boris did a great job, and along with a number of folks on Twitter, commented on the factors that helped Allstate succeed at innovation.  What was remarkable about the commentary was how unremarkable it is.  This is not to say that Boris or the other folks who were Tweeting weren't creating insights.  No, the information they were providing is rock solid and valuable.  What's remarkable and distressing to someone who wants innovation to succeed broadly is that most of the factors really aren't that interesting or remarkable. What is remarkable about most innovation successes isn't that they have good practices, which if you follow the Twitter stream will seem fairly obvious, but that it takes passion, and vision, and intestinal fortitude to get these rather unremarkable things done in a business.  And that's why innovation seems one the one hand so obvious, and on the other hand so difficult.

Let's go, as they say, to the Twitter stream for some examples.  You can find much of this by searching on the hashtag #spigitwebinar.

What were some of the success factors: (The bullets are direct quotes from the Twitter stream)

  • They wanted to engage people in the org in the Innovation process - and their playful room was a starting point
  • On-you-own-time experimentation - project to encourage and enable people to work on innovative ideas on their own time  
  • Allstate set up a lab for employee innovation. Originally post-it notes on a wall. Then wiki. Now a collaborative idea site.
  • Allstate gets most of its value from targetted blitzes
  •   Everything is transparent...We want employees to have a voice in the innovation process
  • Not all great ideas come from the exec office. Wanted to tap into the power and passion [from employees all over the world
  • We need to fail affordably, we need to fail quickly, we don't need to fail spectacularly
  • Key aspect of Allstate's most successful employee ideation blitzes? Senior leadership sponsorship
If you follow innovation at all, most, if not all of these quotes are reasonable and mundane.  Allow people to fail and learn from failure, get senior executives involved and committed, tap the entire employee base for ideas, find a "place" for people to innovate and think differently, use targeted campaigns.  For innovators, this is the truth - but the mundane truth.  Again - not beating up on Boris or anyone else leading the discussion, but this is preaching to the choir.

The real question is - if this is so mundane, why is it so difficult to do well in many firms.  None of these actions is very distinctive or difficult, and none requires a significant investment or differentiated skills, so why is it so difficult to get them done?  Why is it still the case that much innovation is based on individual acts of heroism in many firms, rather than on a consistent innovation capability?  

To me, that's what's remarkable about innovation.  It's a task that anyone could do, given the time and resources, but one that only a few people actually do, often in opposition to the corporate culture, yet the outcomes are ones that everyone wants.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:41 AM


Blogger jdkohrs said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:04 AM  
Blogger jdkohrs said...

Jeffrey, perhaps business focus on capitalism, profit maximizing behavior and competitive performance pay taps into natural human tendencies to protect ideas. A culture of sharing seems to be a prerequisite. I'd love to see other corporate case studies to see if nonprofit firms, privately owned businesses or publicly held companies have diffent tactics or experiences with innovation. It's funny as I just wrote a blog post on the subject this week. I thought you might be interested as there are overlapping themes.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Boris Pluskowski said...

Hi Jeffrey

I agree with you that, especially for those of us who have been in the innovation industry for some time now, a lot of what was said on that webinar was not rocket science, nor brand anything remarkably new. Although I daresay there were some elements around some of the emerging trends in collaborative innovation - especially the use of "innovation competitions" as a part of a sustainable innovation process - that were pretty interesting.

However - there is a key phrase in that statement above: "for those of us who have been in the industry for some time now" - I don't know about your experience, but the vast majority of the companies I deal with still have people leading innovation initiatives who are relative newbies to this type of thing. This in itself is nothing new either - I put up a blogpost in mid-2009 lamenting the lack of anything "new" in the innovation conference world (…/). There is an element of need for even basic case studies, interviews, and other such info to get out there on a regular basis in order to embolden and educate those new to Innovation.

I agree with you too - that most of these things seem like common sense, and shouldn't be difficult to do in business. After all, good business strategy should, in my opinion, make common sense. It's not necessarily in the extra-ordinary vision of the future that most business strategies get their value from.

However - why is it then so hard to get done? Because most companies fail abysmally when it comes to experimenting and executing new concepts - especially on the management side.

Corporate politics at big companies inherently dictate that doing something new is risky proposition - that either gets rewarded handsomely for success, and punished with obscurity for failure.

Innovation - despite its promises, also has its risks - which few are willing to take on - least of which to the level of fully committing to the "passion, vision, and intestinal fortitude to get these rather unremarkable things done" as you so eloquently put.

As a result, by its very nature, Innovation is frequently the endeavor of single acts of heroism. Although for every act of heroism we hear about, there were probably 10 acts of abject failure that were quietly brushed under the rug of corporate amnesia.

And what of the successful hero - what happens to them? They get promoted, hired away by a competitor, and some retire because to take chances like that, it frequently falls to someone who has nothing/little to lose. Then what? You're left with a gap no leader with political ambition wants to fill: Either you're the guy who made an already successful program, well...successful (big deal, would've had to be an asshole to screw that one up) -'re the asshole who screwed it up. Lose-Lose.

Of course, you and I know that there are ways to avoid this dilemma - that there are ways to broaden the innovation capability so that it becomes an organizational competence and not the crusade of any one single individual - but for that, you need an organizational commitment to Innovation that can only come from the very top - and how often does that REALLY happen?

So yes, whilst anyone in the org can do (and arguably everyone should do) innovation - the reason I think that it's so difficult to do is that the senior people who really NEED to be doing it, supporting it, loving and living it...don't.

We need to change that - and one of our key roles as Innovation champions, speakers, and thought leaders in the space is to support, in any way possible - the small groups of people in every organization who are doing it - and to teach them how to get the visibility and support they need to succeed.

Best Regards, and Happy New Year :)

Boris Pluskowski

10:26 AM  
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8:46 PM  
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