Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Eliminating innovation unknowns - definitions

Yesterday I wrote a post about the need for executives to eliminate the "unknowns" when they want their teams to innovate.  If we call on people to improve their day to day routines, there are few unknowns.  They simply need to work more efficiently on the activities and processes that are familiar to them.  But when we call on people to innovate, there are a host of unknowns and uncertainties.  For example:  how much should we invest?  How do we gain the skills?  How do we prioritize existing projects and new innovation work?  How much risk and uncertainty will be tolerated?  These and other unknowns will haunt the team, and unless they are resolved quickly and effectively by a manager or executive, the teams will resolve them by reverting to existing norms and past experiences.

Perhaps one of the simplest, and yet most important unknown to address is a definition of innovation.  We at OVO often demand that our clients develop a consistent definition of innovation that can be communicated to teams within the organization.  This may seem somewhat pedantic or even silly, but until there is a common understanding of the definition of innovation, trying to understand what is "meant" by innovation and trying to deliver on that uncertain request is difficult.  Clearing up this first and perhaps most important unknown is important.

Thanks to UNC

Thanks to UNC we can see just how loose and distributed the definition of innovation is for senior executives. One of their executive MBA programs has recently asked senior leaders from a range of different companies to provide their definition of innovation.  You can see those different definitions by clicking here.  I hope you'll read these definitions, because they are instructive in several ways.

Note that I don't believe it's appropriate for each executive to provide exactly the same definition of innovation.  Circumstances, budgets and competitive realities are different across firms and industries, so the definitions will vary.  But note the range of definitions.  Some speak of improving the status quo.  Some speak of greater efficiency.  Some address customer experience.  Some are impossibly subjective.  Imagine trying to convey some of these definitions to an internal team!

There's plenty of definition out there

Whether executives want to recognize it or not, there are plenty of examples of definition of innovation out there.  Our general definition of innovation is:  people putting ideas into valuable action.  But we don't think you should stop there, because this is only a general definition.  It needs to be enhanced and qualified.

We can thank a number of different experts and agencies for helping us continue to evolve and improve a definition and establish scope.  But for some reason this good thinking is typically missed by corporations.  For example, we believe that a good definition should include the acceptable range of outcomes.  Doblin has helpfully established their "ten types" of innovation:  product, service, business model, customer experience, channel and so forth.  Whether you like this taxonomy or not is unimportant.  What does matter is that in your communications and definition you provide some definition as to what outcomes are valuable, because in the absence of any definition, all innovation is product innovation, and product innovation may not be necessary or even valuable to consumers.  When no definition is provided, past experience guides decisions, and that may not be the best framework.

Other analysts have provided us with the "three horizons" to help determine the amount of change we hope to accomplish with innovation.  So, we can say for example that in this project we are seeking incremental change to existing products, or in that project we want disruptive change.  Again, in the absence of clarity and communication, all innovation becomes incremental.

Next, we can consider the anticipated constraints.  Since innovation is a new and unusual activity, most teams will make assumptions about the resource and time investment.  They'll believe that the project should be accomplished as quickly as possible, with the lowest possible investment.  In following that train of thought they are likely to miss unmet needs and rely too heavily on existing processes, tools and decision making criteria.  We need to define and communicate how much risk, uncertainty and change we are willing to bear, and corresponding to that request, how much discovery, time and investment we are willing to commit.  In the absence of this communication, it will be assumed that any innovation activity, like Hobbes's definition of human life, will be nasty, brutish and short.

Delegating scope and decision making

When an executive asks for innovation but fails to provide definitions and context, it is as if he or she is simply delegating all of the strategic thinking to the team.  While a handful of people are likely to welcome this outcome, the vast majority of corporate teams are left in a state of confusion.  They are experts at executing clearly defined plans that follow past models.  They are not comfortable or experienced working with a nebulous scope to uncertain outcomes.  When confronted with this possibility the most likely response is to complete a project based on existing rules, templates and tools, which results in outcomes that look very similar to existing products and services. 

In no other activity do senior leaders fail to provide clear goals, definitions and communication more readily or more often than in an innovation setting. The reason why this is true is relatively obvious - the vast majority of the time executives and senior leaders don't have to be very exacting with definitions and anticipated outcomes because the vast majority of the work is replicating existing products for existing customers in existing markets.  In other words, the team already knows what is expected.  It's gaining an understanding that innovation requires new definitions, new scope and better communication that will accelerate the pace of new products and services.  This is the first, and quite possibly, the most important unknown that innovators must address.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:30 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home