Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Six Components for successful innovation capacity

I'm always a little cautious about any post that dares to state a definitive number of tasks or components for successful completion of any task.  Therefore, it's with some trepidation that I'm going out on a limb to talk about what I think are six critical components for sustained innovation capacity.  Note that I am saying six critical, not "the only six critical" because while I'm certain these are important, there are probably others that are just as important.

But, since most organizations don't have these critical capabilities in place, why worry about two or three others until the most important functions are in place. 

Note that I am making a distinction between an innovation project - discrete, one time effort - versus building a capability to sustain innovation.  As we said when we talked about the Executive Workmat, you don't need a lot of overhead to innovate once, but you need more guidance and structures to sustain innovation over the long term.

Here's my "top down" list of six critical components to sustain innovation:
  1. Good "governance".  And don't recoil from that concept just yet.
  2. Engaged sponsors who understand the importance of their role.
  3. A defined innovation workflow or process.
  4. Innovation teams made up of engaged people who have some training within the process and understand their roles - perhaps are even proficient at the tools.
  5. Common deliverables - a standard set of outputs, data, information and templates to simplify and standardize innovation outputs and outcomes where possible
  6. A culture that sustains innovation, reduces friction and risk, encourages exploration.
A brief treatise on each.


Most innovators shudder when they hear governance, but no process works better with good governance than innovation.  Most firms have very little time or focus for innovation, so when they get to do innovation they need sharp focus on the right goals and metrics, and good resource allocation and project prioritization.  If this governance is missing or left to chance, the innovation you'll do will be disappointingly small.  We don't want to smother the activity with lots of traditional governance, but providing some clear lines of sight, decision making and prioritization will accelerate innovation.

Engaged Sponsors

A "sponsor" is a person who desperately wants a solution to a problem or opportunity, and can provide air cover, resources and funding to ensure the project gets done.  Sponsors are not selected; they select themselves.  Sponsors aren't simply overseers; they should benefit from the work.  Innovation should focus on critical needs that senior sponsors can't solve or address with existing toolkits.  If the activities aren't sponsored, they won't receive staffing or funding, or will lack critical definition and oversight.


Yes, you can innovate once using any process or method you'd like, but the more often you innovate, and as you innovate in more lines of business, geographies and functions, a common, understood method, workflow or process matters.  Like governance, a consistent, firm but light hand is wanted here.  Everyone should understand the process, know its capabilities and limitations, and gain skills in applying the process.  But the process shouldn't dictate the pace or the amount of discovery, and the process should be an means, not an ends.


I've said it before and will continue to say it until you believe it:  people are THE most vital component in innovation.  Machines and computers can't describe opportunities, do customer research, generate ideas, evaluate ideas.  People matter most.  And getting the right people engaged who are passionate about new ideas and not wedded to the "way we do things" matters.  Moreover, those passionate people need training, and time to do innovation work effectively.


An outcome of good process and strong teams is consistent deliverables.  To repeat innovation success and to gain learning curve advantages, it helps to standardize outputs where possible.  This means defining what each activity should generate, and providing an example, a tool or a template for critical activities.  Doing so reduces the chance that the innovation teams will dream up their own deliverables or completely miss information or insights.


If engaged people and good processes are important, then we must examine the formal and informal decision making and structures that influence what people do and how they do what they do.  That means examining formal decision making and hierarchy, and examining informal cultural barriers.  Your culture dictates to a great extent how engaged and creative your people will be, and what ideas they will entertain.  You don't need to change your culture to innovate once; the culture will overlook your impertinence.  But if you plan to innovate consistently, you will need to train your culture to become much more engaging, risk taking.  More open to experimentation and "failure".  More willing to explore divergent thinking and to break industry rules.   And, since that type of thinking conflicts with 30 years of training and management philosophy, it will be hard to do.

Why you can't pick and choose

What if you don't want to work on all of these factors?  What if you'd like more innovation but don't want to contemplate a focus on these six features?  Which can you prioritize and which can you ignore?  Ah, that's a sucker's bet.  For instance, let's say you provide good governance, train your people and define deliverables but don't change anything about your culture.  Will that deliver the results you hope for?  Probably not.   Or, you work diligently on your culture, define processes and deliverables but lack for engaged sponsors.  Everyone will work on innovation but none of the ideas will ever progress because there's no executive buy-in.

Increasingly, and for a number of reasons, innovation will shift in importance from an occasional, half-hearted activity to a much more focused, consistent capability.  That shift can't happen until an organization designs and builds the components I've described above, and that Paul Hobcraft and I described in the Executive Workmat.  Many firms will try to conduct innovation having paid lip service to some or all of these components, and for the most part that innovation work will become exceptionally incremental or will fail.  Unless and until you decide to do innovation right, and do it completely, you'll struggle to do any innovation at all.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:36 AM


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