Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Performing innovation before the norming and storming

There's nothing quite as confounding and as thrilling as sitting in on an innovation kickoff meeting.  That's because all of the issues that have been overlooked, all of the constraints that have been applied, all of the issues that have been ignored rise to the surface when an executive demands that his or her company become more innovative.  It's a rare kickoff I attend that we actually talk about innovation.  Instead, we talk about all the things that block innovation, and are the reasons innovation is so difficult to do.

It's interesting because many times I am a "fly on the wall" in these meetings, called in to talk about how to start an innovation initiative, which is almost always sidetracked by people who I believe are earnest in their desire for innovation but equally as earnest in surfacing issues, constraints, complaints and other factors that aren't central to innovation, but which must be addressed before innovation can begin.  I often refer to these meetings as the forming and norming portion of innovation.  Unfortunately, many executives expect their teams to begin performing immediately, and don't plan for or account for the time and energy necessary to process the forming and norming portions.  And we all know that no matter how urgent the performing is, many people cannot perform until they've said their piece, and "cleared the air" about decisions that haven't been made, personnel issues that have been overlooked, etc.

In fact, I'd argue that perhaps the easiest way to get people to surface issues within an organization is to kick off an innovation program.  Many commentators wonder why firms don't start innovation programs.  I don't wonder, because starting an innovation program and overcoming the issues and inertia is probably the most difficult activity in a company.  Further, if innovation isn't considered a long term capability, the work to get started and overcome inertia and submerged issues is far greater than the potential reward.  There's a reason good innovators have been at it for a long time - they've overcome the inertia, issues and cynicism that probably existed at the beginning of their efforts.

What many executives fail to realize is that innovation is change, and change is risky.  Many senior managers and executives decide that if change is going to be thrust upon them, then now is the time to get all of the issues that have been constraining them, whether or not they have to do with innovation, on the table for discussion.  So in a meeting ostensibly about an innovation kickoff, one manager will want to discuss a problematic employee whose actions or poor performance has been overlooked.  Another will want to discuss cross-silo cooperation, which has been difficult in the past.  Another will want to surface issues with compensation or reward structures.   All of these are issues that could block or stymie innovation, but which should have been addressed before the kickoff of the innovation program.  That signals that the organization skipped the forming and norming, and moved immediately to the storming portion of innovation, hoping quickly to move to the performing portion.

I've been in many meetings like this where senior managers and executives are clearly frustrated because they hoped to lay out and engage an innovation action plan, but did not anticipate the long-submerged issues and resistance, the simmering personnel and compensation issues, the consistently ignored policies or procedures that have created dissonance.  Before the team is ready to make a big commitment towards innovation, they want the management team to clean up issues, communicate its goals and set a consistent infrastructure in place.  And this meeting, often the first face to face as we proceed to kickoff an innovation effort, is the first and perhaps last chance managers get to raise these issues before we lay on another key initiative, which rests uneasily on top of a number of other poorly defined, poorly supported projects and initiatives.

If you are a senior executive, or your senior executive wants to kick off an innovation program, please take note.  In any organization there are a number of recognized issues and subordinated challenges that many executives are aware of but have chosen to overlook or ignore.  Asking for commitment to a large innovation initiative, which imposes change and uncertainty, when many issues remain unaddressed simply creates far too much corporate dissonance.  Start talking with your executives and managers early about what the key issues that must be addressed before innovation gets started, and start the forming and norming activities early, so when your team is ready the storming and performing can begin in earnest.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 10:47 AM


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