Monday, June 30, 2014

Slogan, Carnival or Capacity: What's your innovation commitment?

By way of explaining innovation - what it is and what it isn't - I often write about the innovation efforts we've seen and seek to illustrate successes and failures using (hopefully) humorous analogies.  Today I'd like to illustrate some of the different methods or types of innovation implementation and why they fail to deliver any value.  I'm building a list in precedence order, from the least beneficial to the most beneficial.  Bear with me, because I think you'll see the point and with patience gain insights into what to do, and what not to do, when deploying innovation.

Based on our experience, we believe that there are at least five forms of innovation deployment, ranging from insincere to fully engaged and committed.  In ascending order they are:

  • The Slogan
  • The Carnival
  • The Potemkin Village
  • The Skunkworks
  • The Embedded Capability

Let's quickly describe each implementation, what it means and how it innovates, if it does.

The Slogan

Many companies pretend to innovate by talking a lot about innovation.  You maybe aware of this solution - many call it the 'flavor of the month".  This alternative isn't isolated to innovation.  Plenty of other management fads go through this phase.  There is often a weird hope propounded by executives that if they simply talk about innovation, it will happen.  I've never understood if this is cynical,  disingenuous or both.  If they know enough to talk about innovation to their employees and shareholders, they understand to some degree both the potential benefits and the investments.  Yet all they do is talk about innovation, without ever creating direction or strategic goals, without setting aside resources, without committing to do any real work.  Sloganeering just creates cynicism within the organization and makes real attempts at innovation even more difficult later.  Slogans and demands with no investment or support may lead to a brief flowering of innovation, which quickly withers and dies.

The Carnival

We've all been to the state fair or other carnivals.  You know the drill.  After a lot of fanfare, the carnival arrives and sets up on the edge of town.  We know it will be there for only a brief time, and we are both curious and cautious.  Curious because it seems new and exciting, full of strange characters and risk taking adventurers, and cautious because the carneys and their ways are different than ours.  The same is true with "carnival" innovation.  Carnival innovation shows up occasionally to great fanfare, exists for a week or two (Innovation Week) and then the tents are packed up and put away.  The carnival doesn't remain in town long enough to create meaningful change, and in many cases the employees are too embedded in existing processes and reward schemes, so they merely enjoy the rides and the deep fried foods, and then go right back to what they were doing previously.  Innovation was a thrilling ride, but only a short term distraction.

The Potemkin Village

In the old Soviet Union days, the Soviet government would stand up what came to be called Potemkin Villages.  These were picture perfect examples of the bounty of life under communism.  Every house was perfect, the people were happy and well-fed, children ran and played in the streets.  These villages were there for the consumption of journalists and other governments who wanted to believe that communism, or Soviet Socialism, worked.  But they weren't villages any more than the false fronts at Disneyland.  They existed only when necessary, and were quickly emptied when the journalists or government officials left.  Many innovation programs in corporate America resemble Potemkin Villages.  There is an edifice, and perhaps even a few people actively engaged, but looking behind the facade there's no "there" there.  Companies can point to an innovation center that remains in place over a long period of time, but everyone knows when the focus shifts that little work is actually completed.  Waiting for innovation to emerge from the Potemkin Village is futile.  In reality it doesn't exist to create things, only to stand as a potential representation of what could be.

The Skunkworks

Lockheed and other defense contractors created the first skunkworks to work on top secret new defense programs.  Originally the idea was to hide away important military developments, but others like Apple adopted the approach.  In later years the idea became to isolate the innovation from the corporate antibodies.  The skunkworks allowed innovators to escape the "business as usual" mentality and work unencumbered, with greater creativity.  This promoted more innovation, but those ideas met harsh reality when the ideas came out of the skunkworks and had to be developed in the traditional product development processes.  Some firms have used skunkworks successfully, but the risks of isolating the "front end" from the rest of the organization are high.  If the ideas seem unusual or risky when they are re-introduced to the business, the existing business as usual antibodies and day to day demands can swamp good ideas that emerge from a skunkworks.

 The Embedded Capability

It's not until innovation becomes an embedded capability - where people understand the importance, align to specific goals, have common tools and language, and healthy debates about what is and isn't innovation - that innovation can actually thrive.  When innovation is fully and completely embraced by an organization, when it becomes "business as usual" rather than a short term carnival or a Potemkin village, innovation flourishes because everyone can engage and everyone wants to engage.  Note that to become an embedded capability, innovation will require communications (slogans) and perhaps even carnivals or skunkworks.  The list of solutions I've described above often fail because they are components in service to a larger solution rather than ends to themselves (except of course the Potemkin Village). 

Which Innovation Installation does your company have?

Often, innovation implementation goes through a number of these cycles.  Executives propound innovation but recognize that merely talking about it doesn't change things.  Then they promote frequent but short term Carnivals, projects that come and go with little impact.  Some then feel the need to establish a permanent innovation center or team but don't task the teams or fund them.

Eventually the innovation activities morph into skunkworks or the executive team realizes the need for sustaining innovation capability, and that's when innovation becomes a continuing core capability and competency, which is its rightful place.  The "ideal" approach to innovation is recognizing the amount of investment, change, skill development and commitment that is necessary to embed innovation capacity in a business, and not flinching.  Too many firms recognize the investment necessary but attempt to get by with less commitment, less investment or less risk, and end up with carnivals that arrive and leave quickly, or Potemkin Villages that remain but are only hollow shells that deliver no value.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:00 AM


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