Friday, January 17, 2014

It's Diverge then Converge for Innovation

I was talking recently with a prospective client, who is trying to build an innovation capability in his business.  He and a small team have been asked to develop innovation competencies and processes in a rather large financial services business.  We've talked for hours about process definition, training the teams, defining key innovation objectives and working to shift the culture.  We are finally on the agenda to meet a very senior VP who will give us the green light to get started.  I saw a copy of the email that reminded the executive of the meeting and stated the purpose.  Greatly paraphrased, it said:  "We'll talk about how we'll do idea generation".

The mind reels.  Literally my mind reeled, and spun so much I was almost physically sick.  There are so many things wrong with this communication and expectation setting that I barely know where to begin, but let's pick a couple, shall we, so you don't encounter the same fate.

Narrowing the Aperture

While I understand that executives sometimes need to have things condensed in communication since they are busy and bombarded with emails, innovation is one of those topics that deserve a more robust discussion and should not be simplified.  If we are going to do something new and interesting, we need to explain exactly what our goals are and how interesting and disruptive the work will be.  Do you think Columbus asked to sail east by simply saying he'd "go another way".  No!  He had to work to convince Isabella and Ferdinand of his ideas and his intent.  He had to paint a picture of what he was certain would happen, in the face of constant ridicule. 

When we shortchange the conversation with executives about innovation, when we limit the scope and downplay the impact, we set expectations far too low.  This makes it hard to get anyone excited about the possibilities, and difficult to ask for more funds or resources to do good work.  By narrowing the conversation, we've limited our possibilities and outcomes, or we have to work to recover by holding more conversations with the executives to broaden our definitions and their expectations.  It's never easy to expand expectations and definitions once they've been set or narrowed.

Using synonyms for the real thing

I hate the fact that idea generation or brainstorming is in some cases a synonym for innovation.  These words are too simplistic and are in fact nested.  Brainstorming is one way to generate ideas.  Generating ideas is one step in an innovation process.  To equate innovation with brainstorming is similar to equate getting an A in one collegiate course with getting a degree.  Yes, it is a step, and an important one, but simply one step in a more holistic process.

When we describe "innovation" as idea generation, or equate brainstorming with innovation, we cheapen the words and reduce the possibilities and potential experience and outcomes.  Those who follow this blog know that innovation involves defining challenging issues or emerging opportunities, researching trends to discover future needs and market conditions, researching and understanding unmet needs, generating ideas or discovering new technologies and, finally, selecting the best solutions to achieve your goals.  Talking about idea generation or using brainstorming as a synonym for innovation is far too simplistic, and narrows the work and expectation, and the amount of time people are willing to invest or commit resources.

Short term actions versus long term change

Finally, this short communication is meant to reassure an executive that what we are about to do can be done quickly with only short term ramifications.  Sorry, but you can't build innovation capabilities or competencies in the short run and sustain them.  Innovation, like any other skill or capability must be regularly exercised or we lose those skills.  Equating innovation with a one time brainstorming effort condenses the work and creates the expectation of a discrete, one time event, not the development of skills and knowledge that will be consistently deployed over time.  You can't "do" innovation once and do it well.  You need to build skills and constantly exercise those skills, for two reasons.  First, without consistent innovation your firm falls behind competitors. You simply can't innovation occasionally and win.  Second, your team loses faith in innovation as a toolset and the skills atrophy if they aren't used regularly.  If you want sudden, rapid and occasional innovation, use a consultant.  If you want to build a sustained capability, train the teams, deploy the teams on innovation activities regularly and set the right expectations.

Communication and Commitment

Look, I know it's hard to ask for the level of commitment required to do innovation well.  Most firms have invested so much in their status quo systems and processes, and have so little extra bandwidth that innovation is going to cause disruptions internally if it is done well.  And no one wants to disrupt the status quo - they want to add a bit more innovation on top of a perfectly functioning organization.  You can't layer on innovation without building skills, consistently innovating over time, and that takes time and commitment.

You'll be much better off setting the broadest possible expectation early through good communication and by building the rationale for innovation.  Setting the scope or expectation too low early means incremental innovation at best, which will not satisfy and will be quickly terminated when it doesn't deliver, or asking for more funds and resources after the work starts, which is never welcome.  Ask for everything up front, accept that you'll need to start small.  Demonstrate the broad scope and opportunity early so that executives understand the potential depth and breadth of innovation, and once you've established the potential scope it will be OK to start out with a smaller scope to prove the value and build your skills and capabilities to the larger scope  you've identified.  But please, be careful with your language, set the right expectations and don't limit your scope too early.

If you understand innovation at all, you'll know the concepts of divergence and convergence.  It's much better to start with divergence, and then converge as necessary, than to converge at the beginning.  Once you've done that, it's exceptionally difficult to diverge afterwards.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:00 AM


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