Wednesday, January 02, 2013

What really blocks innovation

After a week at the beach over the holidays and a lot of time reflecting on innovation work, I thought it would be interesting to start the new year by writing about what blocks innovation.  I think much of what is written and said about the sclerotic nature of innovation activities focus on symptoms and not root causes.  Until we understand the underlying issues associated with innovation, it's difficult to do innovation well, if at all.  Over the last four months we've had great success using the Executive Workmat with executive teams, helping them to understand the components of successful, sustained innovation.  But what's become obvious as we've led workshops and discussions about the Workmat is that there are a number of hidden objections, concerns and disagreements about innovation in executive teams.  Until these issues are resolved, tools and methods won't matter.  Training and certification are useless.  Even your interaction with third party consultants will suffer.

If there are a number of hidden or unspoken barriers or concerns about innovation, what are they, and how do we address them before trying to start innovation initiatives or projects?  I think there are four issues that block innovation but are often hidden from view:
  1. Executive alignment
  2. Uncertainty about near term and longer term objectives
  3. Resource allocation
  4. Don't want to "go first" but don't want to be "left behind"  

After countless business books, management philosophies, balanced scorecards and other means of obtaining executive alignment, you'd think that every organization is closely aligned to strategic goals and outcomes.  Where innovation is concerned, nothing is further from the truth.  When we talk to executive teams about innovation, its clear that there are very different perspectives, different goals and even different definitions between and among members of many executive teams.  What most executive teams are aligned to is obtaining the next quarter, staying within budget and driving up share price.  Anything that may call any of these objectives into question is anathema to the team.  While executives demand innovation, they hope it will happen in ways that do not disrupt the highly tuned "business as usual" operating models I described in Relentless Innovation.   Further, even when there is some agreement about the need for "innovation", what is usually described as innovation is really incremental change at best, or continuous improvement.  Executive teams lack a common language and definitions about innovation, and limit their sights and definitions to incremental, internal and product-oriented innovation, rather than the breadth and depth of innovation potentials and outcomes that are possible and necessary.  The vision for innovation is cramped, cautious and serendipitous at best.

Uncertainty about objectives

Which is most important?  Obtaining short term goals or envisioning long term needs and objectives?  And what does "long term" mean anyway?  After years of right-sizing, most organizations have just enough people to accomplish the day to day work.  Pulling the best people from the day to day activities to focus on longer term innovation seems risky and dangerous.  Where should the teams place emphasis?  How much of the existing time, resource and focus should be placed on day to day efficiency?  How much should be focused on longer term objectives with less than certain outcomes?  If resources are reallocated to innovation, what should the team "Stop" doing?  Here lies the rub.  We all have limited resources and far more opportunities than we can pursue.  Which are the most important, and what should we "start" doing, and what should we "stop" doing in order to free up the resources necessary to innovate?  This question is probably the most difficult for many executive teams to answer.  Until there is clarity about objectives and they are placed in the correct balance by the CEO or other senior executives, the management team will revert to what is safe and predictable, and innovation will be starved for attention and resources.

Resource Allocation

As noted above, until the objectives are clear, little focus is placed on innovation, and resources are scarce.  But there's more to this than simply creating more focus around objectives.  It's not a matter of simply "more" resources, but a matter of the "right" resources at the right time.  Innovation demands the best people in the organization, not simply the people who are available or who can be freed up from their existing activities.  This is not a case where more bodies are necessary.  Innovation suffers unless the best people are involved.  When the most respected people are involved, the ideas seem less risky, they have the backing of the best people in the organization.  When people who enjoy less respect are involved in innovation, you send the signal that innovation is less important, and the ideas are more easily ignored.  What is the level of investment your team is willing to provide for innovation, not just in the number of people, but the caliber of the people?  You send a very powerful message as an executive team with the choices you make, both in terms of the number of people, as well as the type and caliber of people.  Think of it this way:  who on your team can you least afford to "give up" to an innovation activity?  If innovation is as important as we think it is, can you afford for them to not be on the team?

No pioneers but plenty of followers

No one wants to be the first to try out a new activity or methodology when so much is on the line, especially in organizations with highly efficient processes and limited resources.  So it can be very difficult to find an executive on the management team willing to take the plunge and start an innovation activity.  I've been fortunate enough to sit in on meetings where the CEO asks his or her team, "who wants to lead an innovation effort?" and the silence is overwhelming.  Everyone in the room recognizes the possibilities and the risks involved.  There's a palpable sense of fear based mostly on concerns about "failing" to achieve a novel concept and also based on distracting the organization from their day to day activities.  Yet what is also interesting is that every executive wants as much investment and attention as the next one, so while no one wants to go first, most don't want to go "last" or see another individual gain a lot of credibility because they were successful.  Don't kid yourself, any executive team is a group of people who are at the top of their game, and who want every last resource they can obtain and every last opportunity they can pursue.  While innovation is risky, these executives don't necessarily want to be the first to the plate, and definitely don't want others to gain an inordinate about of credit for the success they may achieve.

Clarity, alignment, resourcing, leadership

Before asking your teams to innovate, examine the commitment and alignment of the executive team.  Sustained innovation can only occur when there is clarity about goals, alignment within the executive team to the goals, deep commitments to appropriate staffing and resource allocation, and the willingness to lead into risky or uncertain initiatives.  When these factors are present, innovation can flourish.  When any one is absent, innovation will suffer, because we tend to revert to safer, more familiar activities when we feel threatened.   

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:50 AM


Blogger Unknown said...

Great post. You shed a lot of light on the paradoxes associated with innovating, i.e. the balance between building for the future in the context of uncertainty vs maintaining the success of today in the context of current market conditions.

One other thing I would like to hear your opinion on is whether innovators in organizations are given adequate incentives to innovate or not. Since managers/executives are normally rewarded for their short-term performances, could it be possible that they don't see much in it for themselves if long-term innovation plans are successful? Perhaps organizations should rethink how to reward would-be innovators, intrinsically or monetarily, in order to cajole more innovations.

9:57 AM  

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