Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Innovation is a system; Brainstorming an activity

I'm interrupting my planned cycle of blogs about innovation and velocity to write briefly about the reasons brainstorming and idea generation can seem so difficult and so pointless, and the continuing conundrum about the effectiveness of innovation.  Note that I draw a distinction between these two concepts - idea generation and innovation - because one (idea generation) is just an activity or phase within the larger context or system (innovation).  When idea generation, brainstorming or whatever label you choose to use to describe generating ideas happens outside of a greater context of innovation, the results are often less than satisfactory, for four key reasons:
  1. Ideas often aren't aligned to strategic goals or needs
  2. Ideas don't satisfy key customer needs or anticipate future trends or shifts in the market
  3. The organization has little ability to speed good ideas into the market
  4. There are no enabling or sustaining capabilities or processes to further innovation activities
Let's imagine that, like many firms, your team has spotted a problem or challenge and has been told to "innovate" a new solution.   Like many firms you'll rush to "generate ideas" using brainstorming, and many times you'll be unhappy or disappointed with the results.  Often the ideas are simply incremental or don't introduce new concepts or features.  The ideas you capture seem familiar and rehashed.  In the end a concept no one particularly likes is supported by an individual with power or stature, everyone falls in line, and little gets done.

This is, of course, a description of a poorly run and managed brainstorming or idea generation session, but it is not a description of innovation.  In fact it leaves out or ignores much about innovation as a "system".  Paul Hobcraft and I documented that there are at least four significant components to an innovation system:
  1. Strategy and tight linkage to corporate goals and strategy
  2. People, skills and roles
  3. A defined workflow or process
  4. Cultural engagement and support
If all of these factors are carefully considered and implemented, your organization may have the ability to innovate, and to innovate consistently.  Starting with idea generation, while ignoring the other factors present in an innovation system, is similar to wondering why the car won't start when the battery is dead and there's no gas in the tank.  There are many mutually reinforcing components, decisions and activities that work together to make innovation work.  Idea generation is simply a step in a defined workflow or process, and frankly not even the most important step.

What happens if you ignore the components of the innovation system?

Strategic Alignment
Ignoring or doing a poor job linking strategy and innovation means the team creates ideas that are very incremental, thus in line with corporate goals but don't "move the needle, or they create ideas that the executive teams can't understand or don't believe support the mission and business of the organization.  Often the strategic goal of idea generation is merely to respond to an immediate threat, rather than a carefully defined strategy with longer term consequences.

People, Skills, Roles
Ignoring the work around people, skills and roles means that you have people with little expertise generating and managing ideas, who have much more familiarity and comfort with efficiency and effectiveness.  Further, these people haven't been trained for their innovation roles and don't have the knowledge or skills necessary to do the job well.  Finally, they often aren't compensated or rewarded for risky innovation work, which makes them less likely to work deeply and invest the time necessary to do the job well.

Innovation Process or Workflow
If you ignore the fact that innovation is a workflow or a process, you'll find your team generating ideas that simply stack up in a queue waiting for approval, funding and product development bandwidth.  Even if all of these factors fall into place you'll soon discover that an expensive launch of "me too" ideas isn't helpful or valuable, and that the "downstream" activities you need to build and launch a new product don't appreciate your occasional surprises.  Turns out that while your idea may be urgent, product development, legal, regulatory and IT are fully loaded for the next few years.  Changing priorities and work assignments may be difficult in order to bring a product to market quickly.

Finally, if you ignore your corporate culture or, more to the point, hope to run roughshod over the way your culture normally works, you're in for a shock.  Existing corporate culture, attitudes, belief systems and compensation strategies are far more powerful than a good idea.  Cultural barriers will arise at every turn to slow a good idea, chip away at it and eventually stymie its progress.  You can innovate outside your corporate culture (in a skunkworks) or you can change your corporate culture, but you can't innovate well within a corporate culture attuned to efficiency, consistency, short timeframes and reduction of risk.

Brainstorming, Idea Generation or any other activity meant to generate ideas are simply that - activities.  These activities need context (what does the client actually want?  What is likely to happen?  What are our competitors doing?) and alignment (What problem are we solving?  Do our ideas align to strategic goals?) before ideas are generated.  For rapid implementation and commercialization, ideas need defined processes (How do good ideas get prioritization in product development?  Who is responsible for launching the concept?) and cultural emollients (Why does the culture accept this idea?  Who lowers the barriers?  How are compensation programs and reward systems changed?)

If you want to witness this for yourself, do the following experiment.  Tell an innovation team that they must create a viable, interesting new product or service and release it to the market within a year.  Ask them to do the work on a part-time basis, and offer them no new training, methods or skills.  Simultaneously, ensure that their "day jobs" become more demanding with tight deadlines and important activities.  Don't provide any additional funding, resources or rewards for innovation work.  In less time than you can imagine possible, the teams will exhibit a dissonance, uncertain how to proceed, because while innovation is important, it isn't as urgent as the "day job" and the methods and processes aren't defined.  Does this sound like cruel and unusual punishment?  It's what many innovation teams face every day.

Brainstorming or idea generation are simply activities.  To succeed, they need to be placed within the appropriate context of an innovation system.  This concept of an innovation system means that there is work involved to build up the capabilities to innovate successfully, much like every other viable, functioning process in your business.  Ad hoc, occasional attempts at innovation often fail, for the reasons I've listed above.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:36 AM


Blogger Unknown said...

Looking at how your business is thriving means you have to watch whats is happening with all of your assets and also of your liabilities. There should always be a check and balance between them.

6:51 PM  

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