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.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:52 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home