Friday, June 20, 2014

If you give an innovator an idea, he'll want to launch it

When my kids were little, we used to read bedtime stories.  We had a number of favorites.  The classics of course were always in demand - books like Goodnight Moon were perennial favorites.  Another set of books that has really stuck with me were also favorites, and they've been in my mind lately because they illustrate issues with innovation so well that are so often overlooked.

You may be familiar with the book If you give a mouse a cookie, or perhaps If you give a moose a muffin.  These books open with farcical but funny conundrums.  For example, if a mouse were to show up in your kitchen and ask for a cookie, you might be inclined to give him one.  That's just kindness.  However, that act of kindness will lead to unexpected consequences.  Because, as the book points out, if you give a mouse a cookie, he'll want a glass of milk to wash it down.  And, being the kind individual you are, once you give the mouse a glass of milk and he finishes it, he may want to check his appearance in the mirror to ensure he doesn't have a milk mustache.  But when he views his visage in the mirror, he decides he needs to trim his mustache, and so on.  The book is filled with these If, Then statements that lead on to more or less logical next actions.

How does this illustrate something about innovation?

From my experience, it seems that everyone thinks about innovation, but they think about it in very discrete, disconnected ways.  R&D folks think about innovation as creating a new polymer.  Marketing folks think about innovation as changing a marketing channel or delivering a new product.  Finance folks think about innovation as driving new revenue or perhaps modifying a business model.  What very few people think about are the knock-on effects, consequences and series of events that are required to unfold when you innovate.

For example, if your management instructs you to innovate, you are going to want some scope, instruction and definition of goals or outcomes.  Lacking those you'll create your own, or wait for someone to provide them.  Once you have defined the goals or scope or had them offered to you, you'll want to ensure your skills are adequate to the effort.  You'll acquire skills or hire them, or attempt innovation with the skills you have.  If you generate ideas, you'll want to know how to evaluate them.  You'll seek input on what matters, how to evaluate and measure ideas and what ideas matter most.  Once you have good ideas that you are happy with you'll want to know how to commercialize them.  That means getting the best ideas in front of people who can make decisions about product development, prioritization and funding.  If you can't get your ideas in front of these people with a really compelling argument, all your previous work is for naught.  Even if you can get your ideas in front of these people with a compelling argument, it won't matter unless there are available resources to implement the ideas.  And even if there are available resources all the capabilities or technologies may not reside internally, so you'll need help to find and acquire the intellectual property or technologies and bring them in house.

It's all interconnected

Like my relatives in the small rural community where I grew up, all the aspects of innovation are related.  Some of the relationships are strong and evident - to get new products I need new ideas.  Some of the relationships and interconnections are less obvious - to get new ideas I need to do good research to understand customer needs.  Some of the obvious relationships and actions aren't comfortable conversations - to move new ideas into production, something else has to be removed from production, or we need more production capabilities or assets.

The real problem is that the individual acts are all easy to define, and somewhat easy to conduct.  The "magic" in the innovation process is defining and understanding all the strong and weak interactions, dependencies and decisions and building a - wait for it, here comes the MBA consulting word - holistic innovation approach that recognizes and understands all of the interrelationships, consequences and dependencies.  If I build the best idea generation facility in the world in a large corporation but neglect to consider and rework the means of getting ideas into a product or service development process then all I create is cynicism.  But idea generation tools and techniques are easy, and rethinking priorities and product portfolios and rejiggering priorities for existing products and services to make way for new product development is risky and difficult.

The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone

This isn't really a mystery - everyone knows how interconnected and tightly woven an efficient, effective organization is.  What most managers and executives recoil from is the work necessary to unwind 20 years of ever-increasing efficiency and capability to make room and recognize the consequences of incorporating more innovation into these processes.  Introducing innovation tools like brainstorming or idea management software solutions is easy.  Incorporating them into end to end processes that recognize the knock-on effects, decisions and consequences is difficult, time consuming and introduces a tremendous amount of risk.  In the old song about the skeletal system we learn that bones are connected to other bones, but sometimes we forget that it is muscle that holds the bones together in the joints.  Skeletons hold together through tension created by tendons and muscles that make up the joints.  In a similar way we need more muscle and better design around innovation process, so that good ideas have a workflow that makes sense and considers the knock-on effects and consequences.  We can't simply string the right bones in the right sequence and expect a skeleton to stand without the muscles that link the bones together, anymore than we can introduce a lot of innovation tools or techniques and neglect to link them together to lead to logical outcomes.

Building a competency versus introducing tools

If you want to sustain innovation, you need to build a competency for it, and perhaps the most significant part of that competency is a well-considered, integrated, fully thought out workflow that describes how ideas are defined, created, evaluated and converted into products and services, and that considers all of the consequences, changes in prioritization and resource allocation.  Without that you have a set of tools that while powerful individually will consistently fail to deliver results.

Too many firms introduce interesting, powerful innovation tools but fail to create the linkages between the tools, and the bridges between innovation phases and product development phases.  These bridges, and more importantly the consequences of the decisions within those bridges, are perhaps the most difficult component of innovation.  That's because it is in these bridges that real trade-offs and resource allocations are made.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:39 AM


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