Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Clarity accelerates and sustains innovation

Unfortunately, when many executives and politicians say "let me be clear" they mean to emphasize what they want to communicate.  It's not necessarily clarity they seek, but emphasis of a certain point of view.  Clarity in innovation, like sunshine in politics, is the best disinfectant. 

Why, given the amount of education, communication channels, and "intentional" discussion and dialog are we left with so little clarity about innovation?  We are constantly told it is important.  Survey after survey reinforces what CEOs think about the importance of innovation.  Vast numbers of executives, managers and staff talk about innovation and the impact innovation could have to their businesses.  We have more communication channels - written word, spoken word, voice mail, email, social media, etc - than ever before.  Yet nothing about innovation seems clear.

In many innovations there are a number of places where clarity breaks down:
  1. The linkage between corporate strategy and the role of innovation to support that strategy
  2. How much risk and change an organization is willing to bear when innovations are deployed
  3. What timeframes and horizons innovation teams should explore
  4. What the criteria are for evaluating ideas once they are generated
  5. Whether or not to explore ideas that may cannibalize existing products and services
  6. How much time and money to spend on innovation efforts
  7. What tools, techniques and methods are acceptable to use to spot needs, generate ideas and manage them effectively
  8. Whether or not to work with clients and business partners to generate ideas
In a world where nearly everything is certain, planned and the unexpected is viewed with distaste, clarity of purpose, clarity of action, clarity of decision is paramount.  We live in pre-planned, pre-destined workforces where little is unexpected or allowed to change.  We have well-defined processes and policies that govern how we work and what we work on.  Yet innovation constantly protrudes into this well-defined, neatly ordered world, and it seems dangerous.  Because nothing about innovation is clear.

So you have an option.  You can keep innovation, like mushrooms, in the dark, covered in manure, hoping something positive will spring up.  Or you can create more clarity about innovation.  This will require work.  Work on the part of executives to support and sponsor change, and the disruption that innovation will have on the business initially.  Work on the part of managers to define new workflows, new teams, new tools and new reward structures.  Work on the part of the rest of the staff to think about new ideas, new opportunities.  But none of that work will happen without clarity.

Innovation, left to its own devices, is uncertain, risky, unfamiliar.  Much of the reason innovation is risky and unfamiliar is because there's no clarity about it's importance, tools and validity.  Further, if innovation is attempted occasionally with little preparation, it is not likely to succeed.  Thus we sweep the small failures under the rug.  This eliminates any chance of learning or improving.

Innovation clarity looks like this:  executives who state what they want, what they can endure in terms of change, and what they are willing to invest.  Managers who define which tools and techniques are valid, the timeframes and commitments necessary to succeed.  Teams that welcome "wild" ideas and actively seek customer insight and input.  Clarity requires a communicated scope, a defined innovation budget, rewards and recognition for the participants.

Lack of clarity looks like this:  no one is sure what the executive wants other than a "new" product.  No one is certain of the investments, budgets or staffing.  People are distracted by their existing work because no one has made it clear that innovation is more valuable.  No one owns the idea, no one is certain how it will be commercialized, and everyone is afraid that it will damage something that already exists.  No one is certain if the concept will meet existing or new client needs.  Everyone can't wait for innovation to be over, so they can get back to their "regular" work.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:13 AM


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