Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Innovation: lost in translation

I was thinking today, between flights, about the kabuki dance that innovation often becomes.  What I mean is that many CEOs and executives talk about innovation and the benefits of innovation.  They describe how innovation will help their firms grow and become more profitable, and create differentiated products or enter new markets.  All of these suppositions are true.  Innovation can help a firm accomplish these goals.  But only if the people tasked with innovation have the skills, capabilities, resources and political cover to do innovation. 

So, in an era when CEOs and senior executives consistently extol innovation, yet fail to adequately follow up or invest in innovation, what are we to believe?  Are executives guilty of "innowashing", talking about innovation without committing resources to drive up the stock price?  Or are they guilty of cynicism, simply trying to appear innovative without investments?  Or, do they believe that every utterance is immediately implemented within the organization?  Or, perhaps, do they lack understanding about what it takes to convert innovation demands into productive outcomes?

First, the basics.  Executives don't need more innovation, any more than the rest of the company does.  What the executives and their companies need are more growth, more differentiation, more profits, new products and entry into new markets.  Innovation is simply a set of tools and capabilities that can help achieve those goals.  But innovation is only a set of tools and capabilities, it is not a sentient capability residing in your organization simply waiting for the executive direction.

So, what's the problem in translation? 

Executives want innovation, but they need near term profitability, so their most consistent emphasis is on efficiency and near term profits.  But, once that fact is acknowledged, we have to ask they next question - why is the demand for innovation lost in translation throughout the organization?

I for one don't believe many executives are cynical or innowashing their companies.  I believe many executives are deeply (and rightly) concerned about their innovation capabilities.  So if we eliminate the few executives who are talking up innovation merely for marketing's sake, that means that executives are either detached from the reality of translating demands into corporate actions, or don't understand how woefully unprepared their organizations are when attempting innovation.  Or, perhaps both.

Immediate Execution

When executives request innovation from their organizations, they are sending signals that innovation should be prioritized - but at the cost of what other activities or capabilities?  Every organization today runs on the bitter edge of capabilities and available resources.  When a firm focuses on innovation, what work should it put aside?  What happens if it "takes its eye" off the ball, and misses its revenue or profitability numbers in a quarter?  Unless executives detail specific actions and resources for innovation outcomes, little innovation work will occur, because senior and mid-level managers are overly focused on meeting short term goals.  No new objective that the executives demand, without constant follow-up and clear decisions about investments, will get off the ground.

Lack of skills

Most organizations today have deep skills and exceptionally capable people who have been consistently trained in the existing processes and methods.  The organization to some degree is at the peak of its capability and knowledge - about existing processes.  This means that the executives take for granted that the knowledge and capability for innovation is as strong in the organization as the capabilities and skills for business as usual.  It's often shocking to discover how little capability there is in an organization for innovation, since many people have never attempted it in a corporate setting.  Yes, there are a range of tools scattered here and there, and a handful of people who have been to facilitation or brainstorming classes, but that doesn't make a consistent, coherent capability.  Executives are always surprised by how much skill building and capability development is necessary to innovate effectively.

Translation and Skill Development

These two factors indicate that innovation is tightly tied to capability development, communication, change management and culture.  Until the concept of innovation is firmly established and constantly communicated and resourced, it will be hard for firms to innovate consistently.  And, until the skills and capabilities are developed, and the culture is shifted to be more accomodating to innovation, little innovation will get done.  Innovation is not a project, but a corporate capability that spans factors like communication, culture, process and governance.  Until organizations understand that, the kabuki dance will continue, and the innovation demand will be lost in translation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:25 PM 0 comments

Monday, February 25, 2013

Three innovation clockspeeds

The pervasive lack of enthusiasm or even awareness of time in regards to innovation is a constant source of amazement for me.  In organizations transfixed by time, speed and efficiency, innovation and product development are often the slowest out of the gate, the longest efforts to accomplish and seem completely unrelated to the real world. 

In any organization, people are constantly asking - can we do this faster?  Can we respond to customers more quickly, can we collect cash more quickly.  The only things most businesses want to do more slowly these days is pay bills.  Yet innovation seems to be in a time warp, slower by far than other important activities and processes.  There are, of course, reasons why innovation is slow:
  1. Innovation is uncertain and risky, so organizations try to move slowly to reduce risk
  2. Innovation (if done well) is often ahead of the market, so organizations try to time innovation to market needs and demands
  3. Innovation requires tools and techniques that are unfamiliar, which slows the process
  4. Innovation and subsequent product development processes are sclerotic, like blood vessels full of plaque, stuffed with unimportant but time consuming activities.
My stipulation is that you should do innovation as fast as humanly possible, even at the risk of skipping steps or bypassing checkpoints, because your internal clockspeed is almost certainly out of synch with the market's clockspeed.

Your internal clockspeed

Your clockspeed - how fast your organization works - was set by management dictum that likely governs efficiency and effectiveness in familiar and known processes.  This means that your clockspeed is relatively high when working on familiar products and services, and very slow otherwise, as the prevailing business as usual operating model rejects new innovative products and services.  What's fascinating is that your operating models slow innovation down at exactly the time that they should be speeding up.  Because you don't have to worry about your internal clockspeed only, but the external market and innovation clockspeed as well.

The strange thing about internal clockspeed is that it is similar to the weather - everyone complains about it but few do much about it.  Now's the time to stop complaining and start doing something.

External market clockspeed

Your markets are likely moving faster than your internal processes, since the markets are subject to competition, new entrants, substitutions and other factors that Porter and others made famous.  Further, as businesses grow and age, they shift from an offensive posture to a defensive posture, suggesting that reacting to incidents in the marketplace becomes preferable to creating disruptions in the marketplace.  More than likely, your best, top clockspeed is equivalent to the market's, for existing products and services, and far behind the market's changing expectations for new products and services.  But that's not the real problem.  The real problem is innovation clockspeed.

Innovation clockspeed

Innovation is happening everywhere, all the time, in your industry and outside your industry.  If you compete in a lucrative market, there are a host of firms innovating right now, seeking to disrupt your market, create substitutes for your product or to simply replace the need for your product or potentially your market.  Innovation happens far more quickly outside your business than inside your business, for reasons we've discussed above, but also because there are many ways to skin a cat - you've perfected one, but thousands of individuals and firms are working new ways to skin a cat, and many are working on developing reasons to do away with cat skin all together.  Innovation clockspeed isn't simply about bringing a new product to market faster, but about making the product or market obsolete or unnecessary.  The speed of change in the marketplace itself won't tell you this - this clockspeed is completely unexpected and totally disruptive, so it constantly surprises many in the market or industry.

Getting obsolete faster
Fact is, nobody cares about how efficient or fast your existing process are to provide existing products and services.  Those are table stakes my friend.  What will differentiate firms in the future is an accelerated ability to innovate, at least as a fast follower if not an innovation leader, carefully tracking the external market clockspeed and anticipating innovation clockspeed.  If you aren't tracking these two, more accelerated speeds and their impact on your business, the sand is quickly running out of your hourglass.  The time to address uncertain innovation processes and sclerotic product development processes is now.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 3:12 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Making new mistakes

Nothing is quite so frustrating as working with a client who claims to want and need innovation, but is paralyzed by indecision or doubt.  Unless, of course, it is a client who has decided that regardless of the new ideas they generate, they will all fail, because of the mistakes they made in the past.

I've worked with a number of clients where teams can generate interesting, relevant, valuable ideas for needs that exist in their customer base.  Rather than proceed to develop these ideas, the team then huddles up to discuss all the reasons the ideas won't work.  And often, the reasons the ideas won't work are nothing more than a litany of mistakes the organization made 'the last time' they tried to innovate. 

Those who ignore the past

It's one thing to be paralyzed by indecision, or to question innovation due to the costs or risks involved.  It's quite another to reject innovation because of failures or mistakes made in a previous attempt, but you'd be amazed and saddened by the amount of discussion that goes on about the previous mistakes.  Many companies and teams are haunted by the fact that previous teams made mistakes that slowed or killed innovative ideas.  What the past has to tell us about the future is completely another matter.

Santayana is credited with saying that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.  What did he say about those who are fixated with history and believe we cannot learn and change?  Whatever happened to all the lip service about becoming a "learning organization".  Can we simply acknowledge the past and then move on?  What does this learning organization learn?  How to avoid failure?

Let's make new mistakes

Perhaps one of the rallying cries for innovation teams should be "let's make new mistakes".  At a minimum, innovators should look to history for cues as to decisions or actions to avoid, in order not to make the same mistakes again.  But they should not become fixated on the past.  Instead, innovators should decide to avoid the mistakes of the past, and realize that they will make a host of new mistakes moving forward.  They'll make mistakes because many firms have never attempted a consistent, sustained innovation program.  Any new activity where the history has been less than successful and the teams are working in unfamiliar territory will lead to mistakes.  That should be OK - we are a learning organization after all, and new mistakes should equate to new learning, new insights and ever better processes and outcomes.

Error-free innovation

Like perpetual motion, life on the Moon, and the calorie free chocolate bar, error-free innovation is a myth.  You will make mistakes when you innovate.  As they say in skiing, if you aren't falling occasionally, you aren't challenging yourself.  The same is true with innovation.  But rather than avoid mistakes, your first goal is to change the attitudes and mindsets about making mistakes, as long as those mistakes lead to ever better outcomes.  Of course we should be able to avoid the mistakes of the past, and should not become morose in our beliefs that we'll simply repeat those mistakes.  If you are living in a Groundhog Day of repeating past mistakes, innovation isn't your key need as a business.

The problem with Six Sigma, Lean, efficiency and so many management philosophies is that they've eliminated experimenting, trying new things, making mistakes in order to learn and grow.  Corporate cultures recoil at even the hint of a less than perfect outcome, and innovation by its very nature is messy and uncertain.  It's simply not possible to innovate in an error free manner, so you can't eliminate mistakes.  What you can do is eliminate the attitudes and perspectives about mistakes, which are ultimately the factor that is holding your team back.

The Innovator's Creed

Perhaps a line in the Innovator's Creed should be:

We promise to understand and attempt to avoid past mistakes, and not be bound by them, and we promise to risk enough to create new mistakes and learn from them, in order to grow and change in ways that improve our company, and deliver products and services that matter to our customers. 

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:29 AM 0 comments

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Structure and innovation: the tipping point

There are some interesting coincidences about life on earth.  For example, if the Earth were just a bit closer or a bit further from the sun in its orbit, life as we know it wouldn't exist.  And, while we need oxygen to survive, the atmosphere has a nice mixture of oxygen and other gases that we don't require to live, and if the oxygen level were much higher life would be difficult.  In other words, there are many factors and attributes that work together in harmony, even if in isolation they would appear to be antagonistic.  The same is true with creativity, structure and innovation.

Like many things in life, the far ends of the spectrum are often compelling but very ineffective.  In the case of innovation, at one end of the spectrum we find the "no structure" advocates.  These individuals believe that innovation and creativity reject all structure or process.  Innovation is innate and obvious, and will progress based on mutual recognition of value.  Innovation is effortless, spontaneous and continuous, just waiting for us to commercialize.  On the other end of the spectrum is structure, process, concreteness, the ability to document, justify and prove.  Innovation at this end of the spectrum is the outcome of carefully designed methodologies, concrete evidence and risk reduction.  Innovation is a checklist or formula and we provide little room for divergence or creativity.  Clearly, I'm creating illustrative examples at the extreme ends of the innovation spectrum for a reason:  I really want to write about the tipping point.  Not Gladwell's Tipping Point, but the tipping point that occurs when we add just the next ounce of structure and process that begins to hinder true innovation and creativity.

For those creative types who worry about structure and process hindering innovation, you can rest assured that there is such a thing as too much structure and process.  On the other hand, while ideas may be created in a completely free form environment, without some structures and processes it is exceptionally difficult to transition the idea into a new product or service.  So, I think we can stipulate that some structure or process is necessary, if for nothing else to determine the usefulness, validity and ultimately the commercial viability of the final product.  Process adherents (and I confess I can be in this camp) like to document everything, define everything and "lock down" all aspects of an activity.  One can constrain innovation to a checklist, but what you lose is true insight, true creativity and breadth and depth of scope.  Fully constrained innovation becomes fully incremental innovation, and eventually simply continuous improvement.  Too many constraints, forms, templates, structures and processes limit innovation.

That means that somewhere between the two extremes exists a tipping point - a place where full creativity and the lack of structure reaches a balance with purposeful, valuable and necessary structures and processes.  Move much more toward additional structure and you begin to limit and stifle creativity and innovation outcomes.  Move much more toward freedom and creativity and you lose the ability to manage, develop and commercialize ideas.  Where does the tipping point reside?

To a certain extent that depends on the maturity of your organization, the ability of the staff and culture to recognize and sustain innovation and the existing business as usual culture.  In organizations where purposeful innovation is fairly new, the tipping point is closer to the regimented side, since there are few widely distributed capabilities or tools.  As an organization gains experience innovating, the structure and rigidity become less important, as innate skills and culture learn to shape and manage ideas more effectively.

Balancing structure and freedom, processes and creativity is an art, not a science.  Your innovation activities need enough structure to identify and commercialize great ideas effectively, but not so much structure that people are stymied or slowed by processes, forms and decisions.  To a great extent this is a cultural phenomenon, which means hard and fast rules don't apply.  But, like another Gladwell tome, Blink, suggests, there are those of us who've seen enough examples that we can tell you fairly quickly where the appropriate balance is now, and in the future.

There are many example of the old saying "too much of a good thing".  Too much structure stymies innovation, while too much freedom often doesn't result in viable, practical solutions.  Balancing creativity and freedom with structure and process optimizes innovation outcomes.  The trick is finding the right balance, and staying in balance as your organization matures.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:56 PM 0 comments

Monday, February 11, 2013

Nobody ever got fired for failing to innovate

Years ago I ran sales and marketing for a rapidly growing IT consulting organization.  We worked in the field of ERP, specifically implementing SAP.  In those days we competed with the giants - Accenture, PwC, IBM, and so on.  We won when the client wanted nimble solutions.  The giants won when they weren't willing to take the blame if something went wrong.  As the old saying goes, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.  The implied message is that when you work on a big hairy IT project, if you chose IBM and it went wrong, nobody is going to point the finger of blame at you.

There's what I'll call the IBM Innovation Corollary which hampers innovation.  Nobody ever got fired for failing to innovate.  Well, the actual fear of getting fired is almost non-existent anymore, what people are afraid of now is falling off the fast track, or getting shuttled to a less interesting job.  But people get reprimanded for failing to achieve a quarterly result, or allowing costs to creep up or losing a big customer.  I've never heard of anyone getting fired for failing to innovate.  I've heard a few clients complain about "sticking their neck out" to innovate, but never the reverse.

And before you point out the obvious, of course its true.  There are plenty of situations where failing to innovate is causing dramatic harm to businesses.  I know of one firm where the core business has shrunk by almost 50% over the last three years.  There has been no significant growth and no new products or innovations in almost five years.  It remains profitable by cutting, but the obvious death cycle is awakening even these long-slumbering managers to realize the urgency of innovation.  It's just that all too often you can explain away failing to innovate, but you can't explain away letting costs creep up or missing anticipated revenue targets, even if they are lower than last year.

What would it look like if people were held accountable, consistently, to innovate successfully?  What would the actions, decisions and behaviors of your executive team be if they were going to be held accountable for growth, innovation, new products, disrupting markets?  What if it were not only possible, but probable that you could get fired for failing to innovate?  Would the investments and decisions your team made change?  Absolutely.

As long as there is no downside to a lack of innovation, and rewards and recognitions are focused on short term goals, the impetus for innovation will only be in situations where everything else has been tried and has failed - innovation as a last resort.  What we need in many firms is innovation as part of the strategic plan - innovation as a first resort.  Strategic decisions have become far too complacent, corporations have allowed inertia and risk to become excuses for innovation and change.  Shareholders and employees alike should band together to demand more innovation, more growth, more disruption.  Because if you have a large piece of a lucrative market and you aren't innovating, your market will be snatched away before you know it, and when that happens, no one will care why you didn't innovate.  They'll simply find other managers or executives to grow it more effectively, because you see, the market ultimately fires executives and even companies that fail to innovate.  The average lifespan of a company in the S&P 500 is growing shorter at an accelerating rate.  New markets, new industries spring up and become accepted overnight and seem to pass into obsolescence before many of us have had a chance to use their products.  Who remembers Farmville anymore?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:50 PM 0 comments

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Defining and prioritizing idea streams

In the course of working with clients, we often find at least three different "streams" of ideas.  These streams represent different perspectives and different kinds of ideas, and we believe they should be prioritized according to the strategic goals of the business and the intended purpose of innovation.

The three streams are:
  1. Strategic business needs that innovation can support.  In this regard, a senior executive defines a specific need or opportunity, and plans innovation activities to generate new ideas that will result in incremental or disruptive solutions.  We call this "directed" innovation, since it starts with a specific team or individual aligned to a strategic need directing a group of people to a powerful new idea.
  2. Ideas that occur to anyone, anywhere, in the business or even external to the business.  In this example, it is a common occurrance for people in any organization to have a good idea.  These ideas may solve a current, strategic problem or simply improve an existing process.  When ideas happen outside a strategic definition or prioritization (as above) we call these "opportunistic" ideas.
  3. Ideas and innovations that occur as an outcome of research.  It is fairly common in organizations with R&D teams that new research may spawn new ideas.  This research may be in service to an innovation activity, or may simply be pure research.  But these kinds of ideas don't happen just in R&D.  Any business function engaged in research - researching better solutions, researching customer needs and expectations - may discover new ideas.  We typically refer to this stream as the "research and discovery" stream of ideas.
Now, each stream is important and serves different, sometimes competing purposes.  Directed innovation is important because it seeks, from the outset, to address critical needs and gaps that are recognized by the business as important, and the work is supported by a key executive.  This means the innovation activity is likely to be supported through idea generation and onward to product development.  Opportunistic ideas are important because they happen throughout the organization.  Capturing them and managing them is important because that demonstrates to the organization that anyone can contribute good ideas, and it is possible to have those ideas heard and potentially implemented.  Research and discovery ideas are important because they are the ideas that are most likely to produce a real breakthrough, but often the most difficult to gain acceptance within the organization.

Several key questions arise from this categorization:
  1. Which stream, if any, should we prioritize?
  2. Are there differences in managing the streams?
  3. How do we prioritize and fund ideas across the streams?
 There are a couple of items to note about the streams as well:


Directed innovation happens when an executive recognizes a need or opportunity in a business and kicks of an innovation program or initiative.  This should lead to customer research, idea generation and onward to product or service development.  Directed innovation is focused on a sponsored, strategic need, so it does not need to attract resources - the executive team will provide them.  Further, while there are fewer initiatives and fewer ideas, more of these initiatives are likely to deliver products and services than the other two streams.


Opportunistic ideas are often good ideas in their narrow context, but may not address larger strategic issues or be in alignment with strategic goals.  These ideas may need to be linked to strategic goals or initiatives before they can be prioritized.  When your organization decides to accept opportunistic ideas, you'll need to develop a database that allows individuals to submit and define ideas, and establish a process for managing those ideas and interacting with the submitters.  This cannot become a black box!  The difficulty with opportunistic ideas is that while they may be reasonable, they may not attract individuals or executives willing to sponsor them or provide resources to develop the ideas.  Often, opportunistic programs can collect hundreds of ideas, and only a few are implemented.  However, a well-organized and well-run opportunistic program can increase engagement across the organization.


Ideas and innovation based on research are perhaps the most problematic, because they are exceptionally difficult to anticipate or predict, and they can be very disruptive.  There is a lot of power in the insights and ideas generated from research, but often not enough patience on the part of the executive team or enough focus on the part of the researchers, so this activity can often become an "Alice in Wonderland" exercise unless carefully scripted, which is why many ideas from research often result when research is linked to directed innovation.

Which comes first?

There are debates about which should come first, directed innovation or opportunistic idea gathering.  There are a couple of considerations.  First, how engaged and active is the organization as a whole where innovation is concerned?  If we open up an opportunistic idea gathering and networking program, will people participate?  Will they generate meaningful, valuable ideas?  Second, can you define and implement a program that prioritizes ideas and quickly implements the best ones?  There's no reason to gather a lot of opportunistic ideas if you can't select the best ones and convert them into new products or services.  Third, what is the role of innovation in your business?  If innovation is meant to have a strategic impact, starting from the top with directed innovation will ensure a tighter link between strategy and innovation, moreso than opportunistic ideas.  Fourth, how are good ideas recognized, prioritized and funded?  If the prioritization and funding mechanisms are weak, opportunistic programs will collect a lot of ideas but never support any for funding.  Fifth, how much engagement and involvement do you want across your organization?  Opportunistic idea programs open up innovation activities to a large population, and the number of ideas they generate may overwhelm the capability to respond, which will create anger and cynicism.  While directed innovation requires more planning and process, opportunistic idea programs are easy to implement but difficult to maintain without significant resources.

Our recommendation

Nothing happens in a business without the approval and buy-in of the executive team.  Therefore, start with a directed innovation program meant to solve challenges and problems aligned to strategic business needs as a first step.  This will require your team to define how to manage and select ideas.  Once this program is developed and working, then implement an opportunistic program to collect ideas generated by the whole organization, and define a selection and prioritization matrix for the opportunistic ideas to determine which ones move forward, and then work them in the same or a very similar manner as the directed ideas.  This approach gains some quick and strategic wins and allows you to develop an innovation team and methodology that you can then scale to manage a larger number and range of ideas.  Don't try to do all of this at once, the needs and requirements are different and the engagement model is significantly different between the different idea streams.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:53 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

All I need to innovate is...

Growing up, one of my favorite movies was the Steve Martin vehicle The Jerk.  There are lots of reasons to enjoy The Jerk, but perhaps my favorite part was the scene where he loses his fortune, and is being kicked out of his house.  He tells the people around him he doesn't need anything.  Anything that is, other than:

Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.

After a week of working with several clients who are focused on developing and extending innovation capabilities and disciplines, I found myself thinking about this movie, but in this case I'm the one who is quoting the line.  I find myself saying "All you need to innovate is a solid team, a defined process, a supportive culture, a clear strategy.."

Examples from our work
In one instance, we were working with the CEO to understand just how much of his time and attention were necessary to make sustained innovation successful in his organization.  We recognized that we needed to use a concrete example, so we referred to a managing philosophy he introduced, implemented and reinforced throughout the business over a two year period.  When we quizzed him about what we necessary for success of a significant corporate change like the one he implemented, he suggested three criteria:
  1. A "burning platform" that requires change
  2. Clear goals and rationale for change
  3. A trusted tool or methodology to achieve the desired outcome.
That's just what we need for innovation success.  A dedicated senior leadership, identifying the reasons for innovation change, who implement trusted tools and encourage an organization to believe in the possibilities a new approach will create.

In other words, all you need for innovation success is a committed executive team who are as energetic and committed to implementing innovation capabilities as they were implementing some other methodology - like balanced scorecard or Lean, for example.

With a different client, it became clear that the executives are "behind" innovation as a growth strategy, but they want their teams to have clear methods, carefully defined tools and the skills and training necessary to implement them.  That's because while innovation is desirable, and sustained innovation is preferable, few organizations have the skills and tools in place to innovate.

So, in this case all you need for innovation is a carefully defined "cookbook" of tools and processes that the product teams can understand, follow and implement successfully.  Along with, of course, the engaged commitment of the senior team, which they have promised.

The fact is that it takes a lot of people, culture, processes, leadership, commitment and resources to innovate.  The sooner you start your mantra "All I need to innovate is..." the better off you'll be.  Setting the right expectations early, even though you won't get everything you want, is better than going it alone.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a lot of commitment, resources, culture change and luck to innovate.

Picking and choosing

What's different about corporate innovation from Steve's list of his favorite items is that there's not a lot of picking and choosing allowed.  There are some factors that are absolute "musts" when innovating, and executives can't ignore them or substitute other ingredients.  Some of these factors have been discussed previous in this post:  clear strategy, ongoing commitment from executives, the right resources, a culture that sustains innovation.  You can't pick one or two of these and hope to innovate sustainably over time.  Each of the features has its place for innovation, and ignoring it or simply skipping over the attribute means innovation will be less than successful.  A half-hearted commitment to innovation doesn't result in half-hearted innovation.  Innovation is relatively binary - so it either works, or it doesn't, and half-hearted attempts are rarely successful.  Ask yourself - what do we really need in order to innovate?  Are we ready and willing to commit those?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:19 AM 1 comments

Friday, February 01, 2013

Pay attention!

You want to know what the biggest input gap is where innovation is concerned?  Want to know what really matters when you are starting an innovation initiative?  Did the bright sparkly pop-up advertisement steal your attention in the last 20 seconds?  Did your email notification sound while reading this blog?

Pay Attention

Perhaps the biggest gap between knowing and doing innovation is what I call the attention gap.  It is evident throughout all layers of the organization, across all industries and functions.  People need to pay attention to innovation.

The problem is our business as usual entity functions fairly well in the background, and we've lost the rationale to pay attention to anything for any significant period of time.  The biggest compliment you can pay to anyone in business today is to actively, completely pay attention to what they say. That means shutting out the day to day distractions, the "fires" that constantly pop up, the incessant demands from social media, the phone, email, Twitter, instant messaging and a hundred other constant interruptions.  Undivided, consistent, engaged attention - what some people call "being present" is the most valuable commodity for engagement, change and innovation in any organization.  And, unfortunately, that commodity is overly committed to efficiency, easily distracted by short term needs and often in very short supply.

Executive Attention matters

Let's start at the top.  Executive attention matters.  If what gets measured gets managed, then what gets executive attention gets focus from the rest of the organization.  While many initiatives can be "signed off" and then delegated to the appropriate leader or team without fear of distraction or delay, innovation needs consistent executive attention to succeed and flourish.  There are simply too many uncertainties and unknowns prevalent in innovation work to delegate innovation and lose executive attention.  And we know how valuable and rare deep executive attention can be.  What do the executives in your business pay attention to?  What captures their attention?  If it isn't innovation, then innovation won't capture the attention of the rest of the organization.

Middle Management Attention matters

If executive attention matters and is crucial for success, middle management attention is ultimately decisive and vital.  That's because while executives propose, mid-management disposes, to paraphrase another saying.  No matter what the executives detail and delegate, the middle managers are the ones who determine what initiatives receive high priority and resources, and which circle slowly in a backwater, never quite dead yet never quite alive.  Middle managers can't afford to be distracted from efficiency and predictability, their attention is completely focused on these criteria, until an executive who is paying attention tells them otherwise.  And not a one time suggestion or directive but a consistent interaction to signal that a middle manager must pay attention to innovation activities and prioritize them accordingly.

We pretend to work

There was an old saying in the Soviet Union about work commitments.  It went something like this:  They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.  If executives won't commitment limited and valuable attention to innovation, in the form of their time, their energy and they vision, and if middle managers can't find time to pay attention to innovation and don't want to take their eyes off the efficiency engines, why oh why would anyone else in an organization expect anyone else to pay attention to innovation.  There's a reason many innovators often earn the title "mavericks" - its because they are often a lonely voice in the wilderness trying to draw attention (there's that word again) to new and different realities.

If executives can't or won't pay attention to innovation, and if middle managers can't be bothered to glance away from short term crises and the efficient engines they've created and sustain, no one else is going to pay attention either.  In fact perhaps one of the best methods to move up in an organization is to mimic the behavior that your management team demonstrates.  If paying attention to innovation isn't important to them, why should it be important to anyone else?

The Innovation Inbox

In my innovation heart of hearts I imagine the creation of an innovation inbox - a place so compelling, that refreshes so quickly and demands so much attention that it distracts people from other, less pressing mundane work.  Now, can we create an innovation activity that is as compelling as your email inbox, that attracts and retains attention like a short term crisis and is important enough to demand a lot of your attention? 

Of course not.  We could create constant crisis, like "burning platforms" that pop up and are extinguished, but they wouldn't sustain over time.  What is urgent is not a momentary, short term set of innovation emergencies but a long term cultural change to refocus attention to what is important.  What does your team pay attention to?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:03 AM 0 comments