Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nothing new under the innovation sun

I rise today to praise Innovation Leader and Innosight on their publication of the 2015 Innovation Benchmarking Report.  I've only had the chance to read the synopsis, which is available on Slideshare, but it seems like an well-considered report, and I'm sure it's full of great analysis and observations.  The only real head scratcher, from my perspective, is what we are supposed to take away from the research.  After all, through all of the great graphs and parsing of the quotes and conversations, we are left with the conclusion that a) most corporations are at a relatively nascent state when it comes to innovation capability and b) a lot more work is needed to build these capabilities and sustain innovation as a competence.  Even corporations with long time commitments to innovation find it difficult to sustain an innovation team or capability.  The reporting is fantastic.  The real question is:  why is it still this way?  Will it always be this way - corporate innovators just on the cusp of a breakout, but never breaking out?

Survey Results

According to the synopsis available on Slideshare, the majority of firms responding to the survey described themselves as immature in the development of an innovation capability, and close to 60% of those surveyed have fewer than 10 people working on innovation activities.  This survey is based primarily on Fortune 500 companies, so a commitment of less than 10 people is, needless to say, a very small commitment. 

Perhaps one of the graphs that says more than you'd expect is the analysis of the question "why do projects get killed?".  The top four answers are:
  • No business unit buy-in (which begs the question, what was the innovation team pursuing if it had no sponsorship or buy-in?)  Demonstrates a lack of integration, and the sense that innovation is doing its own thing without regard for the needs of the business
  • Technically infeasible (which begs the question, does the innovation team understand what is technically feasible, what can get done, in the time frames allotted?) This also suggests that only immediately practical ideas, ideas that can be implemented very quickly, are considered viable
  • Limited upside (based on what criteria?  The analysis doesn't say) But this is a classic way to kill nascent ideas. Simply apply your existing ROI metrics to new ideas and they will almost always fail the analysis
  • Low priority (which is another way of saying little or no business unit buy-in)  Innovation teams should spend some time on ideas that aren't exactly within the confines of the existing business, otherwise the business doesn't grow or expand.  And shouldn't the priorities be established before the innovation activity, rather than once the results are presented?
Perhaps my favorite section in the synopsis is the slide on "key challenges" of which five are identified:
  1. Defining the mission and role
  2. Avoiding the idea avalanche
  3. Speed and buy-in
  4. Fly or Die
  5. Aligned metrics
 These are all perfectly correct, and are the same recommendations that innovation writers, consultants, analysts and experts have been making for years.  We've known for quite some time that for innovation to succeed inside an organization, executives must make choices and align key resources to important innovation challenges.  Rather than open the spigots for all ideas, initially the corporation needs to build a pipeline of good ideas and demonstrate it can deliver on them.  Doing so quickly and efficiently, and experimenting and failing rapidly, are critical to success.  Having the right metrics, and not relying on the metrics of the existing business to measure innovation activities, is critical.

From what I can see of this report it is an excellent synopsis of the state of play of innovation in 2015.  However, most of the conclusions and analysis could easily have been written in 2005.  In fact I'm sure many of these same points were made a decade ago.  What we need to be talking about is what leadership, process, skill, cultural and motivational changes must occur in order to achieve what we know corporations must do.  I wrote those focus areas with specific intent.


Far too many executives and CEOs are earnest about innovation, but what they want is the result - the new product or service - without any risk, cost or investment.  Times have changed, business models have morphed and competition has accelerated.  The only way to get innovation is to do it honestly, with deep internal investments of good people and funding, or to be honest and go find good ideas and intellectual property outside your organization.  But be clear and be quick about it.  We need leaders who are committed to innovation, not just the outcomes, but the required investments as well.


Most organizations claim to have an innovation process, but what they have is an R&D process at best bolted on to a product development process.  People don't understand where good ideas come from, and don't understand the discipline and methodology to move from identifying an interesting need to generating really viable new ideas.  The "front end" to a great extent DOES NOT EXIST in most corporations.  It doesn't now, and it hasn't, and this has been a constant theme for over a decade.  Until it does exist, you can expect incremental ideas from internal teams.  It's time to place as much focus on the "front end" as you do on execution.


Over the last 20 years corporations have taught their employees how to be efficient.  Now they want them to be efficient and innovative, but haven't taken the time to teach them to be innovative, or to deal with the cognitive dissonance of trying to conduct convergent, efficient day to day operations and divergent, discovery-oriented work that strays outside the traditional culture and expectations.  When confronted with these diverging realities, most employees recognize their lack of skills and experience and revert to their safe, known roles and processes.  Which limits innovation. If you truly want innovation, then find people who have the skills to create innovation, and build the skills of your employees so that they can innovate readily and regularly.

Culture and Motivation

A good friend likes to simplify the definition of culture as "the way we do things around here".  Culture reinforces the status quo and the traditional lines of thought.  Until culture is able to embrace innovative thinking, and is encouraged to do so by changes in motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) we'll have the same results as we've had in the past.

But this too is old news

Now, everything I've written that needs to change is also old news.  There are plenty of us in the innovation space that have been writing about these particular needs for years.  What we need is action to change the existing cultures, to build skills and allow for a real commitment to innovation, day to day, every day, rather than under pressured situations when a new product is required because of a market downturn or a competitor's surprise introduction.  What we need to do is train, encourage and transform a new generation of managers and executives who will commit their own time and the time and resources of their organization to create a balance between important efficient operations and the need for constant innovation.  Until and unless we can train and empower executives and middle managers to focus more on innovation, large corporations simply won't find the time or energy to do do, and will continue on the slow path toward extinction.

I'm fairly confident in saying that some of the last words of the captain of the Titanic were "this ship is unsinkable", clinging to a belief that was in the process of being proven untrue.  Innovation Leader and Innosight have done a great job reminding us of the state of play in innovation.  Unfortunately it could have been written a decade ago.  When will we actually see the burning platform occur that requires more change than we've seen to date?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:01 AM


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