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


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