Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Innovate out of your comfort zone

I hadn't planned on it.  It wasn't as though there was some great plan.  If you follow this blog you know that I tend to write about whatever pops into my head.  But I notice a pattern emerging this week.  A consistent set of blogs that examine what executives and managers get backward about innovation.  It's interesting, actually.  As a consultant who is regularly planning and leading innovation projects, it can be a bit disconcerting to see how often well-meaning teams get things almost exactly wrong.

Gut Instincts
Yesterday I talked about the "gut instincts" of managers, who think that "creativity must be free".  They refuse to provide boundaries or scope for innovation, when it cries out for it.  Later they force innovation into very defined processes or familiar channels, rather than allowing innovative ideas to carve their own paths.  As I said yesterday, gut instincts are often exactly backwards when applied to innovation.  For more innovation success, managers need to control what they would normally release, and release what they would normally control.

Doubling Down on Strengths
Today I want to focus on what you choose to innovate.  Again, this is about what is comfortable and in control, and being willing to take risks.  Many managers are too willing to innovate that which they understand and are familiar with, and ignore what is new, unusual or uncertain.  Further, many firms innovate around internal capabilities or technologies rather than based on customer expectations or needs. What this leads to is a constant "doubling down" on existing capabilities, features or technologies, rather than an introduction of new capabilities or features.

If that isn't clear, perhaps two illustrations will help.  The first is a short story:

A man leaves a bar and spots another man, clearly drunk, pacing the ground and clearly looking for something.  The man from the bar stops the drunk and asks:  what are you looking for?  The drunk answers:  I dropped my keys and I'm trying to find them.  The man from the bar agrees to help.  They scan the ground in ever increasing circles near a lightpole.  Finally, with no luck, the first man turns to the drunk and says:  You sure you lost your keys here?  No, replies the drunk, I lost them in the dark alley over there.  Why are we looking here, asks the first man?  The drunk replies, the light is better here.

In other words, regardless of where the needs are, what customers expect, we innovate where we are most comfortable and where the technologies and capabilities are most familiar.

Next, take a look at two (admittedly) crude graphics I created.  On the left, we can see the "space" where most firms want to innovate - where they strengths and capabilities lie, regardless of need or market shift.  On the right, we can see the space where most firms should be innovating, including capabilities, need or technologies where the firm lacks knowledge or capability.

Comfort, Familiarity and Control

What this diatribe comes back to is the recognition that many firms spend far too much of their very limited "innovation" budget and resources focusing on innovating what they "know" rather than spending time discovering what customers need.  The risk of customer discovery is that, like the graphic on the right, we will discover that customers need solutions or features that may not align to our strengths.  A firm can choose to ignore those needs, or can determine to innovate not only its products, but its knowledge, capabilities and even business model if necessary.

If the need exists, someone will rise to fill it.  Once they've successfully filled that need, they aren't going to stop there.  They'll learn how to address the capabilities and features that you believe are clearly in your sweet spot.  By focusing only on what you know, what you are comfortable with, what's familiar, you ignore customer requirements, constantly doubling down on existing strengths.  This makes your offerings and solutions more fixed, and limits your ability to move laterally. 

To innovate successfully, you've got to move out of your own comfort zone.  This in turn may lead to the recognition that innovation isn't just about products.  It may be that it's your services, channels or even business models that need to change.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:09 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What to control and what to release for innovation success

Yesterday I wrote about "out of control" innovation.  The point I was trying to make is that many innovators imagine that they can create new products and services while still under the carefully controlled methods and processes that their business as usual requires.  Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, what many business people "know" in their gut about innovation and how to "control" it is almost always exactly backwards.  Many executives place too much focus and control on factors that shouldn't be controlled, and conversely place too little emphasis on factors that should be defined and controlled.  Let's look at a handful of examples and compare and contrast how each factor is managed, and how it should be managed for innovation success.

Innovation Scope

Perhaps the biggest challenge for many new innovators is understanding that scope and definition matter.  Far too many innovation projects start based on a problem or framing that suggests the team should "come up with a new idea".  But that new idea doesn't necessarily relate to an existing problem or challenge, and is so loosely scoped that for all intents and purposes the team has a blank slate from which to work.

The challenge here is that most innovation teams don't have deep skills, and expect someone to tell them what the specific need or scope should be.  When handed a "white sheet" of paper and told to innovate, with few constraints or boundaries, teams struggle.  They struggle because they are never in a situation where the boundaries or scope isn't defined, or the problem or challenge more carefully articulated.  In this instance, most innovation teams need more definition about the problem or challenge than they are given.  Here's a point where most executives provide too little control, when more is often needed.


Unless your company has a defined workflow or process for innovation, the innovation teams will start "innovating" and will pursue a process that they create from scratch.  Typically the management team doesn't want to dictate "how" the work gets done, but in the absence of a defined process or workflow, each innovator and each innovation team develops its own methods.  These methods usually start, and often end, with a brainstorming activity.  There's no careful consideration of future trends, no customer research, no validation of needs, no evaluation of ideas, no prototyping.  In an environment where every process is defined, innovation is undefined as an activity.  Again, this is an activity where more definition and control from executives could be vital, but little or none is offered.


This factor is what often limits innovation the most, and with the least intent.  Every individual in an organization carries around with them expectations about what the culture will allow:  what changes, what disruptions, what decisions.  Executives, culture and reward systems constantly reinforce these perspectives, often without explicit intent.  Here's a factor that should have far less control, and executives must apply overt and meaningful activity to remove the control.

Innovation teams are governed by what they believe and see reinforced in the business.  They clamp down on themselves, limiting their thinking and creativity.  Unless executives are actively involved in removing this unintentional control, innovation teams revert to business as usual thinking, resulting in humdrum, incremental ideas.  Here's a case where active engagement to remove a control is vital.

Potential Solutions

Aligned with perspective is the concept of the deliverable.  In a product-centric company, the team is very likely to consider product deliverables as the output for innovation, ignoring business model changes, customer experience upgrades, new channels, new services and other innovation possibilities.  The core products and the emphasis on products becomes an overriding control on how people think, and how they plan.  Plenty of innovation opportunities lie outside the realm of products, but innovation teams can't think broadly or expansively enough.  Here's an opportunity for executives to remove the control, welcome solutions that reach beyond new products.


Call it what you will, but everyone involved in innovation will want the work to proceed "perfectly".  That is, in one shot, from start to finish, there are no accidents, no mistakes, no new discoveries and no rework.  Innovation is expected to perform at the same level of variability and error control as all the other exceptionally well defined processes.  The expectation of success and the mirage of control means that ideas must be simplified, knowledge gaps dismissed or overlooked.  Teams that have been developed and steeped in process perfection must now either admit challenges and revert to prior steps or pretend that their work is perfect.  Here's yet another control that executives can release.  They can let the teams know that the result is what matters, not the perfection of the process.  They can release the innovation teams from the expectation of perfection in the methods and processes, and tolerate discovery and rework as necessary.

Understanding and Releasing Controls

Note that some of these factors, like Scope and Process, are factors where too little control is provided and more control is needed.  In other cases, such as the Potential Solution, too much control may be applied accidentally, and needs to be removed or reframed intentionally.  Some controls are overt, such as scope, and others are more intangible.  Some controls are intentional, like process perfection, and some are unintentional, like organizational culture and perspectives.

In most cases, executives and teams place too many controls on factors they should free up from control, and fail to place limits or controls on factors that will actually help the team succeed if there are more controls.  This dissonance isn't intentional, it merely demonstrates the newness of innovation as a capability and the fact that many people aren't familiar or experienced with successful innovation.

Because innovation teams and their managers are unfamiliar with innovation, they apply two concepts:  innovation is creative and artistic, so it shouldn't be "bound" by definitions or process, and the mechanics of innovation should be as error free and as similar to existing, known processes as possible.  In the "front end" the teams provide too little definition, but in the workings of innovation they expect it to resemble the process perfection they've come to expect from other activities.  This dissonance means that innovation is often poorly defined, with narrow expected outcomes.  Further, innovation is expected to work "perfectly" and in harmony with existing thinking and perspectives to deliver a refined new product, when innovation opportunities often exist in many more potential outcomes.

If you are new to innovation

If you are new to innovation, and want to succeed, you might be more successful following this advice:  Whatever you think you need to control, release it, and whatever you think should be freed from definition or control, scope it.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:29 AM 0 comments

Monday, October 28, 2013

Innovation that's out of control

I struggled with the title of this post.  It's a case of knowing what I want to say, but not quite knowing how to phrase it so the title attracts your attention.  I started toying with the idea of innovation as a short, sharp shock, but it turns out that phrase usually is reserved for punishment, and that's frankly the furthest thing from my mind.

No, today I'm interested in focusing on how to make any innovation effort more successful.  And while I've written about good processes and well-trained people and other factors that make innovation successful, there is one standby that will always be effective.  That's what we like to call rapid, disruptive innovation, and the reason it is so successful is that it can be completed before many of the sleeping dragons in your business are aware it happened.

Time is one enemy

No matter how many times you are told that wine, like cheese needs time to mature, that saying has nothing beneficial for innovation.  Innovation needs to work at top speed, because everything in an existing corporate culture seeks to slow it down.  Forms to fill out, approvals to seek, staff to acquire - everything about a modern business is focused on a steady drumbeat, 33RPMs.  And while that works well for everyday business, it is often fatal for innovation.  Because with every delay, every review, every reason to reconsider, your organization will attach more reasons to doubt, more reasons to change the scope of the effort, and more resources will be drained away, all of course at the same time that the "real world" just outside of your cultural boundaries continues to move ahead at light speed.  Very few ideas improve with time, and when they improve with time it is usually as a series of exceptionally rapid experiments.  Unless you have an optimized innovation process incorporating rapid experimentation, your innovation processes will begin to mimic your existing "business as usual" processes.  They will define steps and decisions and staffing and will slow down the effort.

The Perfect is the enemy of the Good

While the subtitle just above is a famous saying, we should note that it is especially true when thinking about innovation.  Many businesses often want to wait until they have the "perfect" idea, the "perfect" team, the "perfect" presentation.  What you need for innovation success is a relatively good idea and a lot of tolerance for imperfections.  While you are perfecting your idea, you may be missing a market window, or chipping away features or benefits that matter to customers to ensure the product fits within your description of perfection.  A highly relevant, 80% complete product in the right time frame will attract customers who will allow you to make improvements, while a 100% perfect product that misses a market window or doesn't include features customers expect will die on the vine.  This "perfection" is a corollary of the time consideration just above.  It takes time to "perfect" any concept, and as time elapses more issues, challenges and concerns can be raised.

The illusion of Control

The final factor I'd like to highlight today is "control".  Managers and business processes desire the illusion of control over decisions, processes, products.  And to some degree they have control over the regular, repeatable products and processes, but they have far less control over the outliers - the disruptive innovative ideas.  If they attempt to exercise too much control over these ideas, they work to improve and "perfect" them according to their understanding, rather than take a risk with customer insight.  The more "control" that is placed on an idea by a culture or decision making process, the more the idea will conform to the internal expectations of what a "good" product or solution is, rather than what a customer wants or needs.  This isn't to say that innovation must be completely "out of control".  Clearly some "control" is necessary, but each activity or process should be aware of he risk of too much control.  Further we must assure that non-conformity isn't simply strangled in the crib.

Off the Rails

These points indicate that innovation can't ride your regular railroad.  Your existing processes, decisions, resourcing, "perfection" of the products will stymie innovation and eventually force it to conform to existing concepts.  But rather than run off the rails, perhaps you must consider a parallel track, where interesting ideas work more rapidly, with less control and perfection, but with some reasonable "guardrails".  A completely undefined track leads nowhere, but your existing tracks lead to "more of the same".  Good innovators understand how to build express trains for innovation that may occasionally jump the tracks, but arrive more quickly and with more distinctions and differentiations than your existing products.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:25 AM 1 comments

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Innovators need serenity, courage and wisdom

If you are uncomfortable, dissatisfied, disappointed in your products and services, you may be an innovator.  Of course, you may simply be a curmudgeon, never happy with anything, but that will be evident to everyone around you.  The difference between curmudgeons and innovators is often subtle, but it deals with the difference between simply complaining, and acting on your passion.  Innovators are frequently dissatisfied, but are simultaneously seeking new and better solutions.  As Emerson wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

If you are dissatisfied with the status quo, it may help to understand the source of your dissatisfaction, and also begin to identify those things you can change, and those things you must accept.  As Niebuhr wrote in the Serenity prayer, we need serenity, courage and wisdom.  We also need to demonstrate the difference between being a disruptive influence and being a disruptive innovator.  To that end, the Serenity Prayer may offer a path to improved innovation, and create a distinction between those who are merely dissatisfied and those who can use their dissatisfaction to create better solutions.


There are aspects of any organization that you may not be able to change, even if they are disfunctional.  As an innovator, you may be dissatisfied with the current state of your processes, products or business models, but you may not be able to change them.  The rationale for change may not exist, or others may be satisfied with the state of play, even if you aren't.  As we've discussed before, only a major calamity or a "burning platform" will create change.  You can either create that burning platform or identify it and get people to buy in, or you need to achieve serenity with the things you cannot change.

Serenity is also important in the process of an innovation activity, because every project has its ups and downs.  Innovation is often a roller coaster ride of discovery, setback and new insight.  Those without the serenity to deal with the ups and downs will struggle.


There are aspects of an organization or an activity that need to be improved or innovated, and everyone understands that to be the case, yet little is done because no one wants to take the lead.  Innovators are not simply dissatisfied with the status quo, but they are also proactive solution seekers.  In this instance you need to be courageous, and take the first step to create new products or solutions when it is clear that others have "bought in" to the need for change and are waiting for someone to lead.

It also takes courage to tell executives that existing products should be cannibalized, or funding for pet projects should be cut in order to develop new products.  Or that a new market should be developed based on trends, scenarios and future insights.  Nothing takes more courage than asking executives to place bets on future products or existing products.


There are factors that are simply unknowable or unobtainable, and understanding these will minimize dissatisfaction and frustration.  For example, many innovation projects include a customer research or insight activity.  The most common question is:  how much insight did you get?  Did your research uncover "all" of the needs?  This is often an earnest but disingenuous question.  It is not possible to uncover "every" need.  You could research a population for years and fail to uncover every need.  We simply need to balance the amount of learning possible with time and resource tradeoffs.  This is an exercise of "wisdom", the ability to know when to stop researching and the ability to defend the decision.  Since much of innovation is unusual and uncertain, often poorly framed, innovation requires a lot of "wisdom" in the ambiguous areas. 

 Innovation:  Both rational and instinctual
While there are those of us who'd love to define innovation as a functional, rational process that is scientific and fully replicable, to date that's simply not the case.  People who need that safety, security and comfort with guardrails and existing well-defined processes will struggle in an innovation setting.  Good innovators will have serenity to deal with the "ups and downs" of innovation.  They'll have courage to reject the existing processes or systems and ask for funding for products that will only emerge in the future.  They'll have the wisdom to know when to push, and when to pull back, when to get more insight and when their gut says they have enough. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:26 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The education of an innovator

I had dinner with a colleague, a noted thinker in the innovation space, who asked me an interesting question.  How long, he asked, does it take for an individual to become an innovator?  This was asked in the context of discussions about what OVO does.  As I explained, OVO offers consulting, training services, process definition, team development and cultural change to our clients.  Our clients are primarily Fortune 500 firms and midsized firms that have decided they need consistent, sustained innovation.  Not a one time project, but to build an internal innovation capability.  So, he asked, how long does it take for this concept of an innovation capability or discipline to take root and flourish?

My opinion, based on almost a decade of supporting this kind of work, is that it takes about 3 years for innovation to take root as an accepted discipline in a large organization.  That has short, medium, and long term implications for a business.

Will it take three years to drive new revenue?

So when I talk about this timeframe, the first question that often arises is:  can we "do" innovation faster?  Can we identify needs, generate ideas and develop a profitable new product more quickly?  And my answer always is:  yes, if your product development and commercialization processes will allow us to.  Defining needs, gathering insights, generating ideas, developing ideas and prototypes can be a relatively rapid activity, if you work with a dedicated team and a clear process.  The "long pole" in the tent is consumed by product development and commercialization. 

We can easily complete a "one off" new project or product development activity in just a few months.  But that one project won't change the company or the culture, and won't embed the processes and disciplines necessary to succeed at innovation over the long run.  The problem with many of these projects is that while they generate new products, they don't generate new learning or significant changes to perspective or culture, so the old ways of doing things quickly creep back in.

One learning about innovation:  you can drive new revenue quickly IF you can overcome the inertia and lethargy and fear of change, and shorten the development and commercialization cycles.  But you won't impact how the organization does business immediately after the discrete innovation project is complete.

Short Term Implications

While we can create ideas for valuable and relevant new products quickly, it often takes months if not years to push the concepts through development, regulatory oversight, legal review and the launch and commercialization process.  Innovation has powerful but temporary short term impact to an organization, and as noted above, the existing culture, process and perspective will quickly "snap back" to its original way of working unless there are longer term implications and capability development.

Another learning about innovation:  Most innovation projects have short term benefit but have little long term gain, unless they are followed up by changes to culture, process and capability.

Medium Term Implications

The development of real innovation capability - team development, process definition, task and role responsibilities, workflow, training, skill development, rewards and recognition - has a huge impact in the medium term.  Trying to "do" innovation projects while also building capabilities is distracting to the organization, but eminently possible with the right executive support.  We call this "flying the plane while building the fuselage".  It's important to do and to build simultaneously, but only possible with executive sponsorship.

Another learning about innovation:  Don't just run a project, and don't spend months building competencies without an outcome.  Do both simultaneously.

Long Term Implications

If your company manages to stick with innovation for the "long term" - two or three years as I've noted above - building competencies, acting on innovation projects, the concept will begin to take root in the organization.  People who are from Missouri - the "show me" types - will see two things:  executive support over a period of time to build skills, and the delivery of new and better ideas that eventually become products and services.  With evidence comes belief, and with belief comes a change of expectations and attitudes.  But that doesn't happen overnight.

Another learning about innovation:  Rather than I'll believe it when I see it, a lot of innovation is based on I'll see it when I believe it, and belief is based on practical experience and demonstrated commitment over time.

There's a problem though

If what I've defined seems simple, then you are correct.  If what I've outlined seems difficult, you may also be correct, because of position tenure.  We're not asking for a change in the gravitational force, or other impossible outcomes, but we are asking for commitment over a period of months and years.  In many organizations, few people remain in positions long enough for these kinds of programs to take root and for the results to be recognized.  Most people need to demonstrate real benefits quickly, and prepare to move on to another role.  Unless there's great commitment and patience to see capabilities unfold, innovation is difficult to achieve.

Another learning about innovation:  Innovation, like fine wine and cheese, takes time to develop and mature.  Rough, rapid innovation can deliver quick results, but the products never satisfy and the capabilities never take root.

What's your appetite?

When people in your organization talk about innovation, ask about their appetite.  If they want fast, quick and dirty innovation, they can have it.  It won't last, it won't build capabilities that can be used later and most likely the results won't achieve their goals.  These are the "fast food" innovators.  If they want real, lasting capabilities, it will take several years to develop and take root.  Real innovation connesiers understand that the cooks need education, and the food needs time to prepare, in order to savor an excellent meal and expect the team to be able to perform at a high level again.  What's your appetite for innovation?  The final learning about innovationTANSTAAFL.  That's Robert Heinlein for:  there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:52 AM 0 comments

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Trust is the missing innovation factor

I've been pondering for a while how to bridge the gap between executives and their expectations of innovation, and the middle managers and staff and their ability to imagine, design and build new products and services.  We've noted previously that a gap exists between what executives want and middle managers and staff can do.  Paul Hobcraft and I developed the Executive Workmat to provide a framework for executives, so they can demonstrate their commitment to innovation and build the "environment" in which innovation can thrive.

But I think we need to go a bit deeper.  When two parties agree on a big goal, they usually document the agreement in the form of a contract.  I was thinking that a contract that called out what executives owe to the organization, and what the organization owes to the executives, would go a long way to clarifying innovation investments and activities, and may smooth the way for more innovation.

So I created these lists.

What executives owe to the organization when it comes to innovation:

  • Clear strategic direction
  • Long term engagement
  • Carefully defined goals and scope
  • Adequate, appropriate resources and funding
  • The delineation of acceptable risks
  • A willingness to override existing culture, processes, and resource commitments
  • The trust to allow teams to do new or unusual activities
  • The time it takes to do innovation well
What the organization owes to executives:
  •  Focus
  • Commitment
  • The willingness to discover, investigate and learn
  • Optimism, not pessimism
  • Responsibility, not blame shifting
  • Energy and enthusiasm
  • Brevity where possible
  • Something new, valuable and relevant to customers
  • The chutzpah to make unusual recommendations
Can you imagine the commitment, the energy and the passion that would be unleashed if both parties to an innovation activity signed a contract that promised these factors?  Of course there would need to be a monitoring or reporting mechanism to ensure both sides lived up to their agreements, but if executives promised to deliver the factors above, and innovation teams and the organization as a whole promised to deliver on their factors, innovation is then just a matter of good problem definition and effective tools and processes.  

The Alchemist's Stone

As innovators, we are all seeking that one ingredient, that one magic formula that will eliminate obstacles and barriers and radically simplify innovation.   What I know to be true is that ingredient isn't a technique or tool.  It's not a person or a consultant.  It's not an insight or a goal.  Ultimately, innovation is about trust.  Trust exhibited by the executives to try out some new methods, to fund unusual activities, to explore new markets or needs.  Trust exhibited by innovation teams to discover, create and present unusual ideas and not get laughed out of the room.  Trust that investments are valuable, and trust that time spent on ideas will be realized in new products and services.

Unfortunately there is in many organizations a lack of trust, in vertical hierarchies and across virtual organizational stovepipes.  This lack of trust leads to constrained thinking, cynicism, reduced funding and tight organization definition with a focus on efficiency.  When executives trust their teams, even when the teams are doing unusual and unfamiliar work, and when teams trust their executives that the work is valuable and will be implemented, everything else becomes secondary.  Tools and processes will improve the state where none exist, but don't build trust.  Expert idea generators and third party consultants can generate more ideas, but may reduce trust between executives and their teams.  You can innovate without trust, but with trust innovation will accelerate.

If you don't have innate trust today, can you create and build trust through the use of my simplistic contract above?  In the absence of deep trust, defining a project and carefully delivering that project, and then repeating that activity is the only way to build trust and establish that both sides are worthy of trust.  Only then can innovation accelerate.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:57 AM 0 comments

Monday, October 14, 2013

Persistence is the innovation secret sauce

I read today Jeff DeGraff's post about how to "Stop Starting and Start Stopping" things so you can improve innovation.  I've grown to enjoy DeGraff's posts.  His insights about innovation are always valuable.  So I come today not to reject his premise about the things you should stop doing to improve innovation.  Every firm needs to stop doing things that simply detract from focus and attention, and stop doing things that don't add value to free resources to focus on innovation.  I fully agree with that notion.  But we need to take this idea of stopping and starting activities, projects and tasks to task.  Innovation is always going to require starting some new activities, and ending some old or existing activities.  But what innovation is ultimately most about is change.  And it's the energy and commitment that are required for that change to succeed that is most important.

Starting something new, stopping something old

Starting activities or projects or ending existing processes, thinking or methods is vital, not just for innovation success but for the general health of the business.  Any business that becomes too complacent and too reliant on its existing products or capabilities will be disrupted at some point.  Any company that fails to start new activities to refresh products and services or simply create new products and services will become unattractive to customers who've become accustomed to new product introductions.  Most organizations find it relatively difficult to start new activities - products, projects or processes - because the companies have limited resources and talent bandwidth.  Usually, starting something new requires borrowing resources from existing products or processes, so both the new project suffers, as well as the existing product or process. 

Ending an existing product or process is even more difficult.  Businesses are full of "Zombie" products, processes and ideas.  These zombie products and ideas haunt the conference rooms of major corporations, constantly reconsidered and almost always rejected.  Killing existing products is equally difficult.  We are often too tied to past experiences and don't adequately calculate future benefits from new products and services.

But both acts - starting something new, and ending something old, are relatively simple in comparison to what it takes to innovate:  persistence.

The difference between

Starting something new, or ending something old, happens quite frequently.  Many, many projects and products are starting each year, and even a few are "killed" successfully.  The act of starting or stopping something is a relatively painless one.  The real challenge becomes sustaining the decision, especially when the existing products or processes are well-known, familiar and have a predictable market presence, and the new introduction is unfamiliar, risky with no promise of sales or market share.   While it may seem strange, it's often very easy to start something, but very difficult to finish a new product or process.  Innovation isn't so difficult in the beginning, or too difficult to kill with enough political will.  What is difficult is the patience and persistence necessary to move beyond an interesting ideas to a finished product, process or business model.

Making the decision to start, or stop, can be problematic but is eventually taken.  Keeping the focus on an innovation activity over the life of an idea is exceptionally difficult.  Remember that an idea is simply a mental concept.  The energy and focus it takes to convert a good concept into a viable product, see it developed and finally launched into the market, in conjunction with all of the other active products or services in your portfolio takes an enormous amount of focus, commitment and resources.  Right now the ingredient most in demand for any company is management attention.  Keeping the existing products and services fresh and viable is a full time job.  Trying to provide attention and commitment to existing products and new ones is almost impossible.

Persistence, energy and commitment

Some people will tell you the critical ingredients for good innovation are creative people.  Some will tell you it's about the right methods or tools.  Others will tell you good innovation is based on excellent customer insight.  They are all correct.  But they miss the most important ingredient - management attention, commitment and energy.  You can have good tools and good insight.  You can generate good ideas.  But without a committed executive team fully aware of the innovation activities and, more importantly, fully persistent in the cause of innovation, you simply won't succeed.  In our home we have a saying:  If momma ain't happy, then nobody is happy.  In this case perhaps a new saying applies:  If executives don't commit, innovation must be quit.  Or something like that.

How do you ensure executive energy and commitment to innovation?  First, try a little education.  Remind your executives of the timeframe from idea to new product commercialization.  We need them on board not only for the rapid idea generation, but supportive through the product development and market launch, which may happen two or three years from now.  Support through the entire process is vital.  Second, ensure you have a "sponsor".  Everyone wants innovation in the abstract.  Who is willing to put their name on the project?  Who will commit to sustaining engagement through the entire activity?  Third, provide frequent updates.  Don't allow the ideas to become just another product development, number 15 on the list of product development priorities.  Constantly report on the status of the idea, and use the sponsor to nudge the prioritization of the idea when it runs into the inevitable roadblocks.

Starting, Stopping, Committing

Starting new things and ending old things are both vital aspects for innovation.  For the most part starting and stopping are "point" solutions.  They require a quick decision and a fairly rapid activity, then we can "move on" to the next activity.  Persisting requires staying engaged through the entire life cycle of an idea, which can be stymied, pushed down the priority list or simply killed at any stage in the product life cycle.  Sure, we need to stop doing somethings to free up resources for more innovation.  And we need to starting doing some new things to perform at a much higher innovation level.  But what we need most from executives is persistence, commitment and engagement to make innovation thrive.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:03 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The internal innovation disconnect

I've written lately about the need for a common innovation language and about the roles that executives play to build and sustain innovation environments.  Today I want to write about another reason innovation often seems so difficult.  I like to think of this reason as the "odd couple".  If you are of a certain age, or watch old television shows, you'll recall the Odd Couple, a TV show based on a hit broadway play.  In it two confirmed bachelors decide to live together.  One, Jack Klugman, is a sportswriter and a professed slob.  The other roommate, played by Tony Randle, is a neat freak.  As you can imagine, living a cramped New York City apartment, hilarity ensues because these two are constantly trying to assert their will, their frame of reference.  Klugman creates chaos, messiness and dirt, while Randle is constantly cleaning.  These two occupy one small physical space, but live in two different realities that often collide.

The reality for large organizations is that there are several "odd couples" that exist within these companies and they are constantly living in their own realities, occasionally colliding and creating confusion when they do.  The key players are executives, middle managers and what I'll call "staff" to reflect the worker bees.  These three groups are vital to the success of any organization, but have different frames of reference, different goals and different expectations.  And like the Odd Couple, when their worlds collide, occasionally hilarity ensues.

The Starring Cast

If we think for a minute about the people and the roles they occupy, we can quickly understand why communication and expectations are often different.  The "executives" inhabit a world focused on growth and differentiation.  They know that continued organic growth is vital to their companies, and have been taught recently that innovation is an avenue to sustained growth.  They don't quite fully understand innovation or its implications, but know that they want more of it.  When they think of innovation they think about disrupting markets, creating entirely new products and creating new revenue streams and business models.  Executives are aware of the operating models and processes within a business but don't feel tied to them or beholden to them.  They are willing to introduce change.  Executives are the Jack Klugman of the Odd Couple.

Middle Managers

Middle managers have the thankless job of doing more with less, keeping the organization running at peak efficiency and constantly achieving the quarterly goals.  When they think about innovation they view it as a distraction from important existing business and recognize that it will draw resources and time away from a highly optimized process.  They view innovation as uncertain, poorly defined and messy, unlikely to be successful.  They think about innovation in terms of tweaks to existing products and services, not disruption or new business models or new sources of revenue.  Middle Managers are the Tony Randle of the Odd Couple.


The remaining staff within an organization recognize the need for innovation, but have been trained through Lean, Six Sigma and a host of other programs to focus on efficiency, not innovation.  These individuals know that innovation is needed most in areas like customer experience, customer service, the integration of products and services.  They understand the need for both incremental innovation and disruptive innovation, but don't believe they have the capability to sponsor or spawn innovation activities.  In the Odd Couple show, the staff represent all of the people who are friends and bystanders who interact with, and are constantly surprised by, the Odd Couple.

Note that the disconnects aren't caused simply by perspectives, but also by what is emphasized (efficiency), the scope of change contemplated (incremental versus disruptive), the types and potential outcomes of innovation (product vs service vs business model) and the language used.  It could be easily stipulated that every possible interaction vehicle and channel is poorly designed and ineffective to create viable innovation conversations across the three groups.  When the groups are required to interact and design or plan innovation activities, the groups have different opinions and understandings about what innovation is, what it will take to accomplish, the costs and tradeoffs and the potential returns.  Unless and until these three groups get "aligned" - a consulting word that's overused but vitally important - they'll continue the hijinks of the Odd Couple, random and messy collisions that don't result in any improvement.

The Plot

Of course this is the way that most sitcoms work - place people with different attitudes or lifestyles in close quarters and then introduce change, or stress, or uncertainty, and watch how they react and how their actions affect each other.  Interestingly, that sounds a lot like innovation - different characters (executives, middle managers, staff) who have different perspectives or needs who work in close quarters who are then placed under stress.  Stress is introduced by a new product from a competitor, a shift in market conditions, a demand for more innovation from on top.  When the stress or change is introduced, the differences, peculiarities and differences between the groups surface.  What we'd hope would happen is that everyone across the three groups falls in line, has a common understanding and perspective and quickly and capably executes an innovation activity.  Instead, what we often get is uncertainty, hesitancy, miscommunication, and other disconnects that lead to disappointing products and little actual innovation result.

A new plotline

These reasons are why it is important to establish an innovation environment and create a common innovation rationale and language.  If we can achieve more innovation alignment and ensure the three groups are operating with some of the same expectations, innovation is faster, easier and delivers far better results, but these things don't happen in the absence of coordinated leadership, training and skill development.  If you want your innovation programs and projects to work more like a finely tuned machine than an episode of the Odd Couple, you'll need to invest in some consistent innovation definitions and language, alignment across the three groups and clear goals.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:16 AM 0 comments