Tuesday, June 11, 2019

You need a why and a how, not a what, for innovation

I'm going to start a series of blog posts about what 15 years of innovation consulting has taught me.  I'm happy to say I've learned a lot about innovation in corporations, and also somewhat excited to say I'm still learning, because the pace and nature of innovation is changing so rapidly.  However, there are still so many basic, fundamental things that companies either overlook or fail to realize that going back to the basics is important.

Over the next few blogs posts I'll focus on one aspect of innovation that I believe is overlooked, ignored or simply given short shrift.  I'll explain why I think the innovation method, tool, approach or philosophy is important and why it doesn't receive focus.  Finally, I'll address some thoughts on how to fix it. 

Whether this is your first time innovating, or you consider yourself a grand master of innovation, I hope you'll weigh in.  I've long believed, and along with several others - including Paul Hobcraft - have often suggested, that we need more clarity and transparency around innovation, to remove the mystique and to simplify the work, so we can have more, and better, innovations.

Today, I'm going to focus on what I think is an important fallacy:  We need a what, not a way.

We need a "what"

So often I hear from companies that they need a new something.  It can be a new product, a new process, a new way of working or thinking.  The most common reason they need this new thing - and need it now - is because some other firm has something and they need to respond.  They need a new innovation and they need it now.  To some extent, what the new thing is, and does, isn't as important as its novelty.  I call this fallacy - we need a what.  But what many companies really need is not a "what" - things, products, services are easy to create.  What they really need is a why and a how.

Most often the reason they need a "what" is because the "why" is lacking.  By why I mean a good strategy that defines where they want to compete, what they hope to win.  Too many firms are too focused on the short term, locking in and protecting the market share and product portfolios that they have.  When another firm creates a compelling new product, the company feels it must respond.  So a team is spun up and given an ultimatum - create a new thing that competes with our competitor's new thing.  Very little thought is given to why this should be done or the outcomes or benefits.

You need a clear "why"
So teams race around trying to create a new thing - without the benefit of strategy (the "why") and typically without benefit of the "how" - methods, processes and tools that support innovation.  Creating a new and compelling product or service WITH the how and why in place is challenging.  Doing so without a definitive why and lacking the how is almost impossible.  This is one reason so many innovation projects "fail" - they were rarely defined with success in mind.

Supplemented with a definitive "how"
Nietzsche is quoted as saying "if you have the why for your life you can endure almost any how".  For innovation to thrive, having the "why" - a clear strategy that indicates what innovation should do, how it impacts the business, a way of thinking about the future competitive conditions and putting in place the factors to succeed - is vital.  Lacking that, all innovation success is luck.  Beyond the why is the how.  Nothing in business is left to chance except innovation.  As the demand for innovation increases it is interesting to see so many companies focus so much on day to day operations and leave so little time, energy, experience and enthusiasm for innovation.  These firms lack the "how" and leave much of innovation to chance.

When you have a why (strategy) and a how (process) then innovation opportunities will regularly present themselves.  You won't need suggestion boxes or crowdsourcing to find good ideas - your executives and teams will suggest good ideas because they understand the strategy and know how to create and implement good ideas.

But we have a strategy

Many reading this will argue that they have a strategy, but I'll suggest what they have are at best goals.  Strategies indicate not only direction and destination but also indicate how to get there and most importantly what to ignore or stop doing.  Even in instances where clear strategy exists, it is rarely communicated or well understood below the C-level officers of an organization, and the pressures felt by the mid-management to operate efficiently and with least risk and variance are what win out.  Is your strategy definitive and clear?  Do your people understand the strategy and the implications to their investments and decision making? 

Many innovation teams are left with an unclear goal, asked to respond to a competitor's product or service, unsure how what they create will fit into the strategic direction of the business, and asked to do this work without clear tools, roles or processes. 

In the end, it's rarely one new killer product or service that wins, because competitors and copycats will often quickly match an interesting product or service.  It's the ability to communicate what your company wants to do, and how it should execute on what it wants to do, that drives innovation success.  If you have a good corporate, business unit or product strategy, ensure that innovation supports it.  Also, ensure you communicate it effectively and people understand what the strategy means.  Second, define some innovation methods, processes and tools.  Even a simple "how" helps accelerate innovation work.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:26 AM


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