Tuesday, June 05, 2012

What blocks speed blocks innovation

After a short hiatus I am back thinking and writing about the relationships between speed and innovation.  What we've considered so far is that velocity (speed in a specific direction) is what many firms require, as the pace of change accelerates, customers demand more and product lifecycles become shorter.  If speed is necessary, then firms will need more ideas to become products and services much more quickly.  Innovation is a catalyst and a enabler for speed.

What's also interesting is that the factors that block an organization from increasing its speed also block innovation from taking root.  There are three factors we'll examine that stymie a firm from gaining more speed, and that are also barriers to innovation.  Remove or eliminate these barriers and you can increase speed and innovation.

The three barriers are:
  • Lack of clarity about mission and direction
  • Fixed processes that are neither nimble nor agile
  • Internal decision making, attitudes and behaviors that become roadblocks
Let's look at each of these to define why they are barriers to both speed and innovation.

Indefinite mission/direction

There's a gap between what executives attempt to communicate and what their teams hear or understand.  In a recent Cap Gemini survey of executives, over 60% felt that the significant barrier to innovation was a lack of an innovation strategy.  Well, who is responsible for creating and communicating strategy?  If your teams lack clear goals, missions and outcomes, they cannot accelerate to higher internal speeds.  If they lack clear goals and missions for established products and services, how can they possibly attempt to create new products and services, whether they are aligned to existing strategies or not?  Speed is about singular focus and executing against that focus with as much energy and enthusiasm as possible.  When focus or strategy is unclear or poorly communicated, a firm cannot act quickly or decisively, and cannot innovate successfully.

Lack of Competency

Many firms have defined workflows that are timed and tailored to a speed or velocity that reflects what was true in their markets years ago.  While the internal pace is comfortable and well-understood, it no longer reflects what's happening in the real world.  Once a year planning expects that customers will wait for you to fund a new idea on your time schedule.  Slow development processes and poorly equipped innovation teams can't produce as quickly as nimble entrepreneurs.  Your processes are optimized for a market that doesn't exist anymore.  You must innovate the way you create, build and launch to keep time with the market, at a minimum.  Locked into a comfortable, defined business process doesn't help you accelerate, and the existing processes are tuned for efficiency and effectiveness, not innovation.

Internal Barriers

As a firm grows, it codifies the rules, decision making processes, approvals and other activities that grant control to an otherwise unruly process.  While these gates make sense if the issue is control and consistency, they become barriers to speed and innovation.  Further, many firms are organized in a "waterfall" methodology, generating ideas, developing ideas, shifting ideas to product development, then introducing supporting organizations like legal, finance, regulatory and IT, which are overscheduled and overworked.  These teams discover new ideas and products late in the game and are expected to react to the pressure of a new concept while maintaining old decision making processes and rules.  The result is a log jam of new products waiting for the minimal resources and stodgy pace of internal decision making and overworked teams.  If speed and innovation were your goals, you'd never design a process like the ones that exist in most corporations.

 Want to increase your internal clockspeed to match the market?  Want more innovation?  Follow these three steps:
  1. Work with executives to define clear corporate strategies that innovators and product teams can link to.  Make tradeoffs - a firm cannot be a product leader, operationally excellent and have exceptional customer intimacy.  Focus on being really good at one, or possibly two. Chose to be a leader in some areas, and a fast follower in others.
  2. Revise internal processes and build new skills to accelerate your internal clockspeeds.  Seek to cut product development times in half - don't question the logic, just ask "what would it take for us to cut development time in half?"  Then ask the same question about idea development.
  3. Examine every gate, every decision making exercise, every approval.  Do they add value?  Or do they simply block innovation?  Consider your workflows - can you do more in parallel?  Can you borrow ideas from Agile methodologies?  What can you discard that slows your processes while not sacrificing quality?
You simply cannot afford to work at the pace you are working at today, and occasional innovation won't save your bacon.  With increased innovation comes speed, and increased speed will enable innovation.  It's a rare corporate twofer!
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:14 AM