Friday, July 22, 2016

Like nothing you've done recently

Sometimes, when you are in the middle of an opportunity or problem, you are left dumbfounded by how hard it seems to get a new perspective, or how difficult it is for others to understand the scope and complexity of the problem.  This struck me the other day about innovation.  Even after over twelve years of innovation consulting, I'm still constantly learning.  It struck me how difficult innovation is for large, especially successful, corporations.  They struggle to understand innovation, to comprehend it, to do it successfully.  In many cases that's because innovation is like nothing they've ever done or seen before.  And, until you are ready to see something new, and not just see it but embrace it, then your old way of seeing and thinking and operating is going to prevail.

Part of this monologue that will follow was initiated by discussions with clients, and I'll get to those points in a second.  But part of it is sparked by the current Republican political convention.  I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said that this convention is different or unusual, or that they've never seen anything like it.  For good or bad, Trump and his surrogates aren't just breaking the mold, they've completely ignored it, sometimes to their benefit, sometimes to their detriment.  The media, comfortable and familiar with the old mold, struggles to understand.  I'm not here to praise Trump, and much of what he and his team are doing doesn't make sense to me.  But this is like something we've never seen before, and it's causing a lot of confusion, consternation and over analyzing.

Corporations and their innovation teams face the same problems, but with a more positive spin attached.  While one can question the wisdom and purpose of the Trump ticket, innovation by all rights is beneficial, drives revenue.  Corporations should want to do innovation, and as much and as fast as possible.  But they struggle, because innovation (especially disruptive innovation) is unlike anything they've seen recently.  Note that I said recently - every firm was once an innovation, and perhaps even disruptive.  It's just that as they age they lose the willingness to disrupt and become more interested in defending existing share.  How is innovation unlike anything they've done recently?

Acquiring Help

Start with simply finding partners to help them succeed with innovation.  So many of our "sales" discussions devolve into educational discussions, where we as innovation "experts" try to help our clients define their purpose and scope, and then try to align our expertise and capabilities to that scope.  Most corporate buyers are familiar with setting a very familiar scope and getting a very specific, often quantifiable deliverable.  Neither of those happen all that frequently with innovation, meaning even the acquisition process is unlike anything the company has done before.

Defining Trends and Customer Needs

Most corporations have some sense of what's likely to happen in the next quarter or two, but don't really investigate major trends and the impacts they are likely to have on customers, prospects and the industry at large.  So they are constantly surprised by "sudden" shifts that have been happening for months or sometimes years.  They simply haven't done the job of watching, understanding and predicting trends, and understanding the implications.  In the same vein, many will argue that they understand customer needs very well.  I'll argue that they understand customer needs about that company's products very well, but can rarely define the next iteration or define the adjacent market opportunities with any degree of certainty, and simply cannot describe the important unmet needs customers have.  Most haven't done it before, and don't have the tools to do it well.

Generating really interesting or disruptive ideas

Anyone, from the lowest paid employee to the CEO, can generate ideas about existing products that make them slightly better.  Few people can dream up ideas about new products or services that aren't in the existing product suite, or that address adjacent markets or unmet needs.  It's simply something the vast majority of the team doesn't do on a regular basis, and probably think they aren't supposed to do even if they have the skills.  Efficiency and effectiveness suggest that sticking to the existing knitting is far more important.

The acceptable source of ideas

In many organizations, there are only a certain number of acceptable sources or fonts of ideas.  Perhaps its a layer barrier - people below a certain level aren't expected to generate good ideas, and so any ideas they generate are ignored.  Or perhaps its only people from the R&D team, while operations is expected to focus only on incremental improvements.  Many people simply haven't been called on to generate new ideas, especially outside their work scope.

Evaluating and Funding

The governance and budgeting process is really a good place to look at issues that will arise in the never done that before.  Governance and budgeting is highly tuned to review and approve budgets, products and projects that are modeled on past successes.  When you introduce a new approach based on new tools and no prior success or funding, the processes respond with:  we've never done that before.  And while they are correct, this isn't an acceptable answer.

On and On

I could go on and on about how innovation is like nothing your firm has done before, or recently.  That's why it is so valuable and such a leap of faith, and why it is so difficult to do.  You have a couple of choices here:

  1. Fit innovation into a scope that reflects what you do regularly and are comfortable with, which means only incremental ideas will be produced.
  2. Surrender and outsource all your innovation to a whiz-bang innovation firm, which is likely to mean you'll get more interesting ideas you simply shoot down later in the process
  3. Learn how to do stuff that makes your existing process and people uncomfortable while you start training them and defining new processes and rewards that encourage innovation, and make innovation something you do frequently, and recently.

Encountering important things that you've never done before can be quite daunting, because it's a high wire act with a lot of potential for failure.  Too often existing cultures will simply try to make things they haven't done look like things they have done, and will be dissatisfied with the results.  You've got to build teams and cultures that are willing to not only do, but embrace activities, markets and ideas that they haven't done before.  Or they'll be left with declining market shares and profits, secure in the knowledge that they've done it all before.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:35 AM


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