Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Absolution for Innovation Sins

One of the reasons I've grown to love Twitter is that I get a broad sweep of opinion about innovation in a very short period of time.  One quick scan of Twitter lists give me updates on what people I like and respect are writing and connecting to about innovation.  One of the links today led me to Helen Walters article entitled
Ryan Jacoby: The Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation.  For those of you who know me, I had no choice but to respond to what Jacoby says, at least as documented by Walters.  There are two reasons for the response.  First, "sins", myths and other obfuscations that innovators suggest only cloud the innovation picture, making it more difficult, not less difficult, for people to innovate.  Second, while Jacoby's points are correct, they really only address a very small perspective of innovation, not the entire picture.

Jacoby's identified "sins" about innovation have to do with the fact that innovation is not an internal, tightly organized and self-evident process, but an experience that requires exploration, learning and engagement with customers.  I think to that extent he is exactly correct.  Most firms that attempt innovation usually start with what they know, and they rarely if ever seek out new information or new context.  So far, so good.

Jacoby goes on to make the following points:

  1. Thinking the answer is "in here rather than out there" - a complaint that suggests, correctly, that too many firms have an inward focus when an outward investigation is needed.
  2. Talking about it rather than building it - keeping innovation abstract rather than plunging in and creating rapid prototypes that create a representation of the idea, which sparks new learning
  3. Executing rather than exploring - doing "stuff" rather than learning and discovering stuff.
  4. Being smart - the curse of knowledge and the fear of failure.  Being afraid to ask questions.
  5. Being impatient for the wrong things - not understanding that innovation works to its own drumbeat, not the quarterly or annual plan timeframes that executives may wish for
  6. Confusing cross-functional with diversity - the point here is that if everyone on the team is from your company, you may have a cross-functional team but you probably don't have diversity of thought or perspective
  7. Believeing the process will save you - relying on a process rather than on good strategy, clear thinking

OK, I buy all of this, but nothing in this analysis suggests that innovation thrives without a process.  If you do engage with your customers, and do rapid prototyping and explore rather than executing and so forth, you are still doing a set of activities or steps and you need people to understand what to do and how to think.  Sorry, but that's a methodology or, god forbid, a "process".  It's just that Jacoby has introduced some external thinking and new concepts into the process.  Why decry a process when you ultimately reintroduce a methodology?  Let's not confuse poorly executed innovation efforts that were internally focused and poorly managed with failure of an innovation "process".

Jacoby is again half correct - a process won't save you, but it certainly won't HINDER you and may speed you on your way, if it is developed and supported correctly, and people understand their roles.  Jacoby assumes that people in organizations understand HOW to innovate and the tools and techniques, and that innovation process simply constrains them.  In our experience, consultants often understand how to innovate but corporate personnel need paths or methodologies to follow.  They may follow inadequate ones (which is really what Jacoby is suggesting) or processes and methodologies that create value.  We at OVO believe we deliver the latter - processes that include scenario planning, customer engagement and observation, rapid prototyping, but also include training people on workflow and helping them understand how to evaluate and select ideas.

Jacoby has created an inadequate "straw man" of poorly defined and constructed "process" and has ripped it to shreds, which probably wasn't too difficult.  Any firm that attempts to innovate without engaging customers, exploring possibilities, rapidly testing ideas and so on is likely to fail.  But these factors don't preclude a good, consistent innovation method or process which helps clarify the work, direct the flow of the project and ensure people understand the tasks they need to undertake.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:41 AM


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