Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It's the time and the season for innovation

Time has been on my mind a lot lately.  That usually because we've been busy, and time seems to accelerate.  When I was a kid, a day seemed to take forever.  Now it seems that the day rushes past, and I can't get anything done.  I look back and wonder where the day went. 

Corporations are constructed of lots of individuals who have their own time opportunities and constraints.  The more people, the more constraints and interruptions, the less time to do something new and different.  Of the three most significant barriers for innovation, culture, time and risk, I still remain convinced that culture is the most pernicious barrier, but time is the easiest scapegoat.

I've written ad nauseam about culture.  Corporate culture is really quite fascinating.  No startup on earth starts out deciding to gain some market share and then clamp down and defend it.  Startups and entrepreneurs want to "put a dent in the universe" but somewhere along the way professional management, hierarchy, risk controls and a lot of other factors weigh down the original startup and make them complacent, defensive and slow.  Perhaps firms like Thermo Electron and Gore have it right - to keep the operating units to a small enough size that they remain hungry, nimble and creative.

But I didn't plan to write about culture today.  Instead I wanted to write about time and its relationship to innovation.   Time has a curious relationship with innovation.  First, there's no appropriate time for innovation, as if corporations have "seasons".  Of course they do.  There's the sprint from the first of the year until the end of the first quarter, the recovery and rush to the end of June, the slack months of July and August when everyone is on vacation, the recovery after labor day to rush to Thanksgiving, after which little of interest gets done until New Year's swings around.  Trying to start innovation activities in any of these seasons is fraught with peril, but for different reasons.  Arguments against starting in the first quarter are that you may distract the company during its important implementation of new strategy.  Arguments against starting in the second quarter are that we are still evaluating the results from the first quarter, and anyway summer vacation season is coming.  In July and August no one wants to start a new project or effort, because so many people are away.  After Labor Day people realize that a lot is left to be done before the end of the year, including developing the annual plan, so folks are distracted by that.  And nothing of much value gets done after Thanksgiving except office parties, so no need to start a new project then.  There's no "season" in the corporate calendar that's conducive to innovation.

In a resource constrained organization, what's the most precious resource?  The answer is time - time from very capable people who face multiple competing demands.  Time is precious, yet time is of the essence of innovation.  Innovation requires that good people with a clear goal spend time thinking - not doing - so that they can create new ideas.  Yet this is the last action that people are comfortable with.  They want to move quickly, to do something, and move on.  Contemplation, creativity, deep experiential learning are simply not how they operate.  There's no season for innovation, and even when it is imposed there is no time, yet time is the very essence of innovation.

What would we use that time for, you ask?  Why, to introduce new skills and new perspectives or new ways of thinking.  Time to experiment, contemplate, actually daydream.  Time to connect disparate ideas and create completely new solutions that aren't obvious on the surface.  Time to reflect, to digest customer needs and respond with really interesting new ideas.  But until people have time to do this, innovation is a box-checking exercise in which we race to complete the activity, eager to demonstrate we've successfully completed the task.

How might we change this?

Let's first assert that we could set aside "innovation seasons" within a corporate calendar.  The first quarter of the year is definitely a time for innovation, because innovation is so intertwined with the new strategies.  It must be part of the launch of a new year, to implement and grow the impact of the strategies developed the previous fall.  The second quarter compounds with more innovation, as the organization hits its stride, and builds on success or on the "failures" of the first quarter.

Summer becomes a time for even more radical experimentation, as we set aside time to contemplate larger, more disruptive opportunities and build goals that will inform the annual planning cycle.  Fall incorporates innovation into the annual plans, and the holidays become a time of introspection, evaluation and internal focus for improvement and skill building.  In fact every season is innovation season, because innovation becomes simply part of the fabric of the way we work.

Time becomes less of an issue because innovation is no longer an interrupter or interloper, but part of the strategy.  Good individuals are still pulled between competing priorities, but now innovation has the cache of integrated strategy, so it gets more time and more visibility.  As people become more engaged and more experienced, a happy accident occurs - they become better innovators, requiring less time to complete incremental assignments or allowing for more disruptive innovation activities.  The risk and uncertainty falls because they are more experienced and because innovation is a core capability rather than a bolt-on activity.

How unlikely is the situation I've described in the last two paragraphs?  Not unlikely, not even that improbable.    A generation of new executives and managers who understand the risks of an all-out focus on efficiency are already coming to grips with the need for more balance between efficiency and innovation.  Incorporating innovation into the fabric of daily operations won't happen suddenly but will happen as product lifecycles grow shorter and shorter and competition from all sides increases.  The race to the bottom is ending; we can't get much more efficient, but we can get much more innovative.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:25 AM


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