Thursday, August 26, 2021

Innovation project or Innovation Capability?

I've been writing, speaking and consulting about innovation for over 15 years, and I'm constantly amazed by the different perspectives and definitions about innovation.  What can be a real positive force in an organization often turns into a neutral or even negative, because it is over-hyped, or does not deliver on unrealistic expectations, or is considered a one hit wonder.

Today, I'm not going to write about "innovation theater" - that is, the concept of talking about innovation and moving some pieces around but failing to achieve any meaningful benefits.  Innovation theater is very similar to what ecologists call "greenwashing" and both are bad for their respective movements.  Innovation theater happens when companies and executive talk up innovation but fail to do anything.

No, today I want to talk about the differences and problems when companies focus on innovation as a discrete project, versus what they really need, innovation as a competency or capability.

Innovation as a project

Of course, almost all innovation is a project - starting with a specific need or desire to create a new product or service, or to generate new revenues or gain new market share.  Then, a problem or opportunity is defined, a team designated, and the proposition is defined as an innovation activity.

Lack of organization or preparation

One problem when innovation is considered a one-off project is that there is frequently a lack of good organization or preparation, and the teams are often brought together to work on innovation as a side job, on top of their regular work.  This means their focus is divided and their loyalties lie with their day jobs.

There's some rationale to this "as a project" approach, because most executives want innovation now, and don't want to wait to build competencies, or are afraid to miss a market window or simply don't want to be seen as falling behind.  Plus, innovation as a project demonstrates some investment in innovation but controls for cost and risk. 

Lack of training/skills or experience 

Another problem with innovation as a discrete project is a lack of training.  Most innovation teams have little experience in innovation work, and while they've sat through brainstorming sessions (most of which were poorly executed) and can recognize ideas, they don't have training in innovation tools and approaches, and lack experience running innovation projects and programs.  In fact, the main metric for most innovation projects is how quickly they can get through the work, so the team can go back to their day jobs.

In most discrete innovation projects, the ideas generated are not distinguished from existing products or services, and thus many times the activity is deemed unsatisfactory or even a failure.  This is because there is little management engagement or support, a lack of preparation and skills, and a narrow definition of discovery and risk.

Emphasis on speed and risk reduction

When your main goal as an innovation team member is to get through and finished with the activity as quickly as possible, you aren't likely to introduce new thinking or expand your scope.

Innovation as a capability

Frankly, given the pace of change and the amount of competition in most markets, I think it is vital that all companies invest in building innovation competencies as a core capability. Just as most companies are really good at purchasing, or order management, or other functions, it is vital to be as capable in innovation work as it is in other functions.  Innovation can't be a distraction or an occasional discrete project, it needs to be a capacity that can be called on daily.

This means that several components are required:

  • Management engagement to support more frequent and recurring innovation activities
  •  Innovation skill development - training people to think differently, to use information more creatively, to reduce risk and uncertainty
  •  A defined innovation process - as much as possible, create a step by step approach that people can learn, master and follow, rather than every innovation project becoming a new experience
  •  Rethinking rewards, compensation and recognition - let's reward people who bring new ideas to life
  • Recognition of the time and resources required to do innovation work well

Projects within a capability

Ultimately, you are going to have many innovation projects, some of which will generate new products, or services, or even business models.  Some will be short and focused on incremental change, while others are longer and focus on more disruptive ideas.  All of these ideas need to operate under and within the umbrella of innovation competencies, and you will need to do more innovation in the future than you do now.

All of this means that you need to be good at innovation as a project, but more importantly you need to build the skills and knowledge to DO innovation more frequently and more capably, and you need to build the CULTURE of the organization to sustain and encourage innovation, and executives need to FUND and ENGAGE in innovation as both a competency and a project.

Without an existing innovation capability or competency, all innovation will struggle as a one off activity or project without the proper tools, language, structure and governance.  With these factors in place, with a well developed innovation capability or competency, it will be easier to start and complete innovation work, which will return more interesting ideas that drive more value, in less time and with less cultural resistance.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:48 AM 0 comments

Friday, August 20, 2021

The innovation and collaboration strawman

 I have friends who work for IBM and other large corporations in the Research Triangle Park, some of whom are experiencing whiplash.  After all, they've been sent to work from home, returned to the office and then sent back to work from home several times.  All before Covid struck.  Covid has only caused the process to repeat.

When they were sent home, the argument was that it did not matter where people worked and the company could save money by downsizing buildings.  When they were brought back to the office, the rationale was that hallway conversations and unexpected interactions would lead to better communication and innovation.  Some of the to-ing and fro-ing that happened is inexplicable, at least to me, but I am sure there was some "strategy" behind it.

Now, the NY Times has a recent article (sorry there may be a paywall) that suggests that working in the office, with the ever present water cooler conversations and random interactions, is not necessarily better for innovation.  The fact that this appears to be "news" suggests how little innovation must happen in the NY Times news room.  Innovation in any corporation is difficult.  It is not a question of random hallway conversations, because that's not what drives most innovation.

Narrow and brittle

The reason that most random hallway conversations don't produce innovation in a lot of corporations is because the organizations are narrow and brittle. By this I mean that most of the people you interact with represent one of two categories:  they are either working in a job or industry that is exceptionally similar to the one you are in, and therefore unlikely to introduce anything new to you, or they are likely to be working in a job or geography so different from yours that they may as well speak another language.

In the first instance, meeting with people who have similar jobs, the random interactions will always return to common challenges and issues that you've hashed out before. The range and scope of ideas and options is exceptionally limited.  In the second instance, if and when you meet people in your company from really different functions or jobs or locations (which is rare), you share so little with them, and have so little incentive to explore new opportunities, that in most cases you may as well be two different species.

The best opportunity for innovation will happen in these instances in a truly cross-functional team with people selected from different functions, industries and geographies, but the challenge is that none of these people work for the same VP, and the VPs don't have any incentive to commit good people to a cross functional project that does not benefit their team directly.

Innovation and collaboration

If Edison showed us anything, he demonstrated that intentionally mixing people with different skills from different fields, and focusing their attention on specific problems, could definitely lead to better outcomes than people working on their own.  

Edison's Menlo Park lab included people from a number of backgrounds, functions and industries, put there intentionally to interact and to bridge technologies and ideas across industry or technology boundaries.  They created hundreds of patents and dozens of ideas, sometimes creating new solutions from the ground up, and sometimes making radical improvements to existing technologies (the light bulb).

So, there are a couple of issues with the idea that collaboration and innovation aren't helpful.

First, having a bunch of unaffiliated people who do not share compensation models and do not work on the same issues randomly running into each other in  the hallways is not a recipe for innovation, it is a Brownian motion experiment.

Two, sending people who share a focus on solving specific problems (senior sponsorship and strategic direction) to work within their fields and to INTENTIONALLY cross pollinate with each other has real potential to create interesting and radically different solutions.

Key Factors

What we can see from this is that whether the innovators work in a distributed fashion, work in a hybrid fashion or all work in the office, is not the key issue.  There are a couple of factors that will determine if and when collaboration and interaction can add to an organization's innovation capacity:

  • Strategy - Why are the interactions valuable?  Most interactions that cross business functions, geographies or technologies will be transformative or disruptive, so they need a helping hand from the top. 

What problems or opportunities do you hope to solve?  Edison did not leave this to chance.

  •  Intentionality - Which people with which experiences or knowledge should interact?  Rather than random interactions, create interactions and collaborations that have an intent.  Mix the technologists from several fields together if there is a potential for a new opportunity, or mix technologists and marketers together but do so intentionally.
  • Shared goals - if the people running into each other, on purpose or accidentally, have shared goals, shared compensation models, they are much more likely to explore opportunities that mix my peanut butter and your chocolate, to use an old saying.
  •  Openness - this only works if the whole idea of collaboration and cross pollination is exposed and open to everyone, and no one needs or wants to claim sole credit for an idea.  If the expectations aren't established, then all the interaction will lead to a number of separate projects, with each group or team declaring their version of the idea the best.

  • Variety - Edison mixed people from radically (at the time) different industries and technologies, seeking to bridge capabilities from one industry or technology to another.  The best innovation teams are often heterogeneous, and it is in their diversity (diversity of age, race, experience, industries, functions, technologies) that creates real value.

Random collisions or carefully considered interactions?

So, the choice is yours.  Whether your teams work from home or the office, you can send them into a billiard ball's path of random collisions with people they don't quite know and don't quite understand, who don't share common goals and who want to claim the glory of any idea for themselves.

Or, you can plan their interactions with strategy in mind, with intention, building to specific goals and outcomes, with a shared context.  

The latter is far more likely to create interesting outcomes, but requires a lot more engagement from senior executives and change management.  So, too often we'll end up with the random collisions which appears to be a solution, but is simply window dressing, or an argument to bring everyone back to the office.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:10 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

What innovation leaders share with military leaders

I'm a fan of military history, and it is always striking to me to see how much new product development and innovation can learn from the military and vice versa.  When we look at the military, we often don't think of innovation, or perhaps we think of the wrong kinds of innovation, like super expensive hammers or weapons systems that sound great but don't work.  The military is rich in innovation, but most of that innovation flows from the middle and lower ranks.  Generals, like executives, for the most part become conservative as they climb the ladder.

The reason we know of people like Napolean, or Grant, or Patton, is because they were innovators who broke the mold.  They were generals who used their insight and innovative tactics to win.  Most innovation (like up-armored Humvees) were the brain child of the soldier in the fight, and in many cases these innovations were discouraged or even blocked by higher ups.  There are plenty of examples, from the breech loading rifle (rejected by the British during the Revolutionary War), the Gatling Gun (rejected by the War Department during the Civil War), funding for heavier than air vehicles (directed to Langley rather than to Wright), the development of the F-15 - just read the books about Boyd

Let's examine what happens to many generals and why that is similar to innovation leaders.

Mental models and organizational structures that restrict innovation

What do we think limits military generals from innovation or new tactics?

 - Drawing the wrong lessons from previous conflicts (preparing for trench warfare and static positions while the Germans develop the Blitzkrieg)

 - Poor intelligence from the front, or not willing to hear the truth about what's happening, or the truth is filtered as it works its way to the top

 - Rapid advances in military hardware and technology that the generals did not understand and could not adapt to

 - Fighting the "last war" - using strategy and tactics that might have been more effective in a former confrontation that were outdated and easily overcome in this war.

 - Failure to act decisively when the opportunities presented themselves

 - Lack of willingness or understanding to promote people who understand what's happening and to place them in leadership positions

 - A deep belief in the power of one's own army to defeat an opponent - perhaps we could call this institutional arrogance

So much for the history lesson - what's this got to do with leading innovation?

What we can learn from these examples

There are a number of correlations between military commanders and the people who will lead innovation programs and initiatives in corporations.  

First, both operate within a highly regimented structure, with a significant amount of top down control  This means that they will either adhere to the existing structures and ways of work, or, through rapid learning, will seek to adapt to the situation.

Second, both the military and large organizations are relatively slow to act, but once they get moving with enough energy and momentum can be hard to stop.  Inertia is a big problem, as is the willingness to believe that the skills and capabilities that won the last conflict or solved the last problem are still relevant.

Third, most military leaders and corporate executives are students of history, but don't spend enough time looking into and preparing for the future.  Knowing enough history to avoid repeating it is valuable, but understanding and assessing future scenarios to prepare to win the next way is also vital.

Fourth, technologies, skills and knowledge are moving faster and the world is a very different place than it was when these leaders (military or corporate) were coming up.  This means they either need to be rapid, constantly engaged learners or willing to put people in charge who have been closer to the action more recently.

Fifth, on occasion both types of leaders will need to take significant risks in order to win  Steve Jobs returned to Apple and cut 90% of the product line  Hernando De Soto burned his boats on arriving in the New World.  Patton decided that he could drive the Germans out of France through rapid attacks and denying the Germans fuel.  

Sixth, the speed and pace of change needs should cause leaders from both organizations to constantly reassess just how prepared they are, and where the next threat will come from.  Disruptions always come from unexpected places and from unexpected sources.

Finally, being able to shift through the news and the noise, and being willing to hear both the good news and the not so good news.  Too often, executives and military leaders don't want to hear the "bad news" and that leads them to double down on poor strategies.  We've got to have better intel, and we've got to be able to digest it and understand what it means more effectively.

How do innovation leaders help their teams and lead from the front?

  1. Get unfiltered insights from customers and the market. Don't accept data that has been filtered, go to the source or have trusted subordinates get the unfiltered data, feedback and needs from the market.
  2. Train your staff on innovation methods, tools and processes.  Make sure they are able to execute on the work you will ask them to do.  They should be as adept at innovation as they are at any other task or job.
  3. Create a meaningful strategy of which innovation is a core component, but not the only component.  Demonstrate and communicate what you want from innovation and how you'll measure success.
  4. Put the right people in charge of innovation work.  Not the "right people" who are good at your day to day operations, but the people who take risks, demand better execution and have a vision for the future.
  5. Lead from the front.  You don't have to "do" innovation, but you need to be engaged in the strategy, supporting the work, asking questions, providing the resources and cheering on the team.  If you are too far from the front lines, you cannot know what is happening, and your teams cannot feel your presence, and may become concerned that you do not support their work.
  6. Communicate.  Then communicate some more.  Be specific about what you want, when you want it and communicate your goals, your support for innovation and the work of the team.  Be sure your actions and investments say the same things as your emails and presentations. 
  7. Be a bit humble. Even if you are the best in your industry, expect that disruptive forces are going to attack you.  Shift from the "know it all" mentality to the "learn it all" mentality.

Of course, one thing that corporate innovation leaders could learn from their military counterparts is funding.  The military has to re-up each year, and justify huge investments in people, in training and in equipment.  In the corporate world, where annual planning and budgeting is also a reality, we need to be better at defining the rationale for innovation and obtaining the funds necessary to implement innovation skills and complete innovation projects.


AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:40 AM 0 comments

Friday, August 13, 2021

The appropriate innovation speed: slow, then fast

As a writer, you are at risk of "jumping the shark" when you start quoting your own material.  However, I could not help going back into my archives to dredge up a post I wrote almost ten years ago, which was entitled Innovation Fast and Slow.  At the time I was writing this post, I was concerned that too many companies were under too much pressure to speed up their innovation activities and generate some interesting new ideas.  Nothing wrong with speed if preparation comes along with it.  Otherwise, speed can kill an innovative idea.

The problem with that speeding up concept was that most companies were starting from zero.  This meant that they had few capabilities, few people dedicated to innovation and few good ideas.  Speeding up a capacity that is basically a dry well can only lead to more poorly considered ideas that won't have an impact.  You cannot speed up what does not exist.  As Newton noted, objects at rest will stay at rest.

When is it appropriate to "go fast"

Today, ten years on, there is more and more talk about rapid innovation, innovation sprints and so on.  The focus is still on speed, because of the three factors I wrote about in my last post - people, tools and time - time is the most precious resource.  And, most executives operate and are judged on very short time periods - quarters at best - so to have an impact, ideas must get to market and prove their value quickly.  Because time is limited and precious, executives want to speed up innovation work, and in doing so we often shortchange the work and are disappointed in the results.

There is no problem with an innovation sprint, or rapid innovation generally, IFF (and for those of you that don't know the nomenclature, IFF stands for if and only if) you 1) have real capacity for innovation in terms of tools, processes and people, 2) you have good insight into customer needs or emerging opportunities and 3) you have a budget.  If you have all three of these factors in place, please, by all means, sprint away.  If you lack any of them, or more likely all of them, going fast will simply lead to a faster crash.

Again, I am NOT saying that speed is dangerous or unnecessary, only that most organizations have artificial reinforcement for speed - because time is a valuable commodity, people have other jobs and the company is evaluated on a quarterly basis - and before you can be fast at innovation, you have to be good at innovation.

Being good at innovation before being fast

Being good at innovation requires the same investment in people, in processes and in culture as does speeding up any other business process.  If you want to speed up procurement, for example, you'll refine your requisition process, cut time from evaluating vendors, work only with the most responsive vendors, train your procurement staff to process purchase orders more effectively, and so on.

But hopefully you can see the fallacy here.  Corporations have people and processes that have been doing procurement work for years.  In other words, they are already pretty good at doing the work, so speeding it up isn't a large lift.  If you don't have experienced innovators, if you aren't familiar with the tools and methods that support innovation, going fast will inevitably fail.

Here's what you need to "go fast" at innovation:

  •  A clearly scoped opportunity or problem with reasonably clear expectations for an outcome
  •  People who have the time and the skills to do innovation well
  •  A method or process that people can follow to touch all the bases and that ensures that the ideas or products recommended can be validated in the market and defended to executives
  • A budget to do this work
  •  An approval process to get ideas from the "front end" to product or service development teams who will actually bring them to life

If you lack any of these, your innovation work will be less than satisfactory.

When to go slow

Finally, no matter how fast you want to go with innovation, no matter how much you are willing to train the team or build the process, you should ALWAYS go slow at the beginning of an innovation activity.

The worst thing you can do is to start with a poorly identified opportunity or problem, or fail to fully understand the scope (incremental or disruptive) or type (product, service, business model) of innovation that is expected.  The second worst thing you can to is to start an innovation activity without understanding customer wants and needs, or what emerging trends or markets are about to unfold.

If you have a good problem or opportunity definition and are reasonably confident of customer wants and needs, your ability to "go fast" is greatly enhanced.  Without this information, which requires some iteration and a slow start, you will constantly iterate back to the beginning to refine your project, or will advance with a lack of data that will cause you to miss the mark in the end.

The wrap up

So, there's a logic tree that ends this post.

  1. 1. You can go fast in an innovation activity if you
    1. Carefully scope the activity and gather important customer insight and
    2. Have a well defined innovation process and people who are good at innovation and
    3. Provide time for the team to work on innovation activities and
    4. Have a budget for the work and
    5. Have a way to transition ideas from the front end into development
If you don't have a good innovation workflow or process, don't understand innovation work or tools, don't have a budget or lack good transition from the front end activities into development, you can of course "go fast" at innovation.  Your team or project is exceptionally likely to fail.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:47 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Three vital factors for innovation success

I've been thinking a lot about how innovation, both how it is done, and who does it, has changed.  Going back into history, innovators were the rare people (Newton as an example) who had time and talent to innovate.  The vast majority of the population were so occupied with simply living, or so uneducated, that they did not have time to imagine a new way of working. Innovation, whether in tangible items, processes or even new governing models, came almost exclusively from a very small handful of people.

Plus, many people did not have access to important physical tools or mental models.  Galileo and Copernicus discovered how the Earth moved, and innovated an entire way of thinking about humanity's role in the solar system.  But most people could not afford a telescope or other expensive tools.

In the earliest models, innovation was driven by very few people with access to tools and education, who had plenty of time.

Harnessing steam

It seems that the world took a great leap forward when we managed to harness the power of steam.  Then, the engines powered by steam could perform work and replace manual labor.  This also allowed organizations to grow, and created the need to create new forms of innovation - process innovation and organizational innovation.  What happened next were building large, continent spanning organizations (railroads) and production systems (mass production).  Innovation remained the same - but the people doing innovation and the methods changed to some degree.  Both became more democratized.

What many people forget about the great robber barons of the late 19th century is that many of them were born poor, and amassed great wealth during their lifetimes by cornering markets.  These individuals were not royalty or the fortunate few would could ponder gravity like Newton, but were people with an insight and the ability to build up industries around their ideas.

Gradually, what we can see over time is that the better ideas win, but through most of history it helped to be backed by wealth, or education.

Taking flight

Even the Wright brothers and their competition with Samuel Langley is a good case in point.  The Department of War in the US (later to be the Department of Defense) strongly backed Samuel Langley to build a heavier than air flying machine, while two bicycle mechanics from Dayton were the first to fly a plane and to make powered flight possible.  Even with the funding and the power of the government behind him, Langley could not do what two relatively unknown and underfunded bicycle mechanics did.  Innovation and the ability to generate ideas and convert them into reality was being democratized.

In the recent past, innovation has been democratized.  More people are working on innovation, the tools and education is more widely available, but time was increasingly scarce.

 Looking ahead

The question from here forward is:  what are the necessary tools to innovate, and who will be the people to understand and best deploy those tools?  Note that the tools are important but secondary:  other people could have done what Ford did with mass production, he just had either better insight or more luck.  There are three concepts we need to investigate to understand what innovation will be like in the near future, and these factors shape the potential of innovation.


I think as innovation becomes increasingly more democratized, consumer markets and other markets will fill with interesting but ultimately useless junk.  The innovations that matter will require far more insight into customer needs or far more vision or creativity than the average person possesses.  The innovations that win, at least in the consumer market in the near future, will require far more creativity and insight than before.

If that assumption is correct, then the name of the innovation game is trend spotting, scenario planning and customer insight and discovery, along with some tech scouting.  To win as an innovator, you need to be spotting emerging needs, emerging markets and emerging technologies and meshing all those emerging phenomenon into solutions that solve customer problems.

In the present and for the foreseeable future, tools and information will be easily accessible and virtually free.  Tools and knowledge will not be a significant barrier to more and better innovation.


Information and some tools are reasonably widely distributed.  We don't need Newtons or Einsteins to innovate future products and services.  But we do need people who are innately curious, dissatisfied with the way things work and motivated enough to want to change them.  That's what innovation is going to require.

Because most of the infrastructure to innovate exists:  we can do rapid prototyping on 3-D printers.  There is plenty of angel and venture money floating around.  You can rapidly scale a management team and the IT you need to support a product or business.

This means that what is needed for innovation is people with above average creativity, who have a real desire to change things and are comfortable taking big risks, who can use the existing infrastructure to their advantage to create products and services they are convinced that customers need, because they've done the research and discovery work.

The "people" factor is a larger challenge, for several reasons.  

  • We've become accustomed to the "great man" or "great woman" theory - that is, only a few really interesting people can generate valuable ideas, so we need to find these superstars and get them on our team.
  • We've indoctrinated our companies and employees with a focus on efficiency, and innovation runs contrary to that investment and risk model.  To gain more innovation, we have to rethink cultures and retrain and refocus our staff.
  • In some organizations, we've drunk the Kool-Aid that says "anybody" can innovate, and we are waiting for anybody to show up with a good idea.

Every business claims that people are one of, if not the most important, asset.  You'll be able to tell which of them really mean this by how they emphasize training, personnel development and new compensation models.  For those companies where people are important and are valued, innovation will be simpler and more effective.

In the near future, there will be plenty of good, creative people who are not weighed down with past experiences or emphasis on efficiency, who are smart and willing to take risks.  The "people" factor will not be a significant barrier to innovation, unless corporations or their cultures simply block the best efforts of these people.


I love the idea of Newton, waiting out the London Plague in a small village, sitting under an apple tree pondering the forces that drew the apple to the ground.  Newton was somewhat luck in that he had a sinecure, a job that did not occupy a lot of his time, and natural curiosity.  He could develop his ideas about gravity over months or years, honing the ideas with other scientists.

Contrast Newton's luxurious and slow discovery with what most people are confronted with today - life by the stopwatch.  We work in exceptionally small increments, and that narrows our scope and our thinking.  Good innovation requires (as we've noted above) discovery and exploration, which take time.  

What's rare and expensive in this list?

Of the three items on this list, I think we can say the "tools" factor has had the most significant price decrease over time.  The tools we work with to innovate were once very valuable and hard to acquire, but now many tools necessary for innovation are ubiquitous and inexpensive. 

People are more expensive than they were in Newton's day, but they also contribute on average far more value, so their cost is equaled in most cases by their output.

Time, on the other hand, has become very valuable.  The ability to deliver something, even a limited product or service today, is viewed as far more attractive than a better or more interesting or valuable product even 12 months from now.

While all three of these factors is important, time is perhaps one of the factors that stymies innovation the most.  We have all the raw material - ideas, tools and people, but we lack time and rely too much on either the "great man" theory of innovation, that is, innovation belongs to one group or requires one expert, or we attempt to democratize innovation (crowdsourcing) without any guidance or controls, both of which speed the innovation process but don't create better ideas.

The better model

The better innovation model is to find a number of creative, curious, self-motivated and slightly hungry people who want change and need a challenge, and build up their innovation skill level, and provide them with the tools and information they need, or allow them to do the exploration and discovery work necessary to obtain insights into emerging needs or opportunities.  What we need to give these people is education, information, and especially time.

After years of innovation consulting, I can say that, given the right people and allowed to build their skills, we can find the tools and the necessary data, if only you will give us the necessary time.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:10 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Creating an innotropic company

 I grew up on a farm, so to some extent it's no surprise that I have always been fascinated by plants.  When I hike in the woods, or work in my garden, I can see how the trees, flowers and other plants position themselves for the sun.  Even in the densest forest, where you would think the undergrowth has no chance of direct sunlight, you will find plants that find small patches of sunlight.

Plants are heliotropic, that is, they seek the sun.  If you observe many flowers, you will see that the flowers will literally follow the sun throughout the day, seeking to absorb as much of the sun as possible.  In other settings, flowers and plants that are located in unfavorable locations will grow at strange angles in order to reach sunlight.  For most plants, direct sunlight is vital to the production of the nutrients the plant needs to survive, and so the plants will do what they can to reach the sun.

This is not a post about biomimicry

In years past, there have been (and may still be) speakers and writers who connected the innovation of plants and animals to ideas about how companies should innovate.  Using lessons from nature, these writers and speakers would talk about learning from nature, or even mimicking what nature does when it innovates.  This is not a post about innovating the way nature does.

Instead, this is a post about creating a yearning or need for innovation in a business, the way a plant needs sunlight to grow and to thrive.  Learning methods or pathways to more and better innovation outcomes is something most companies can do, but first, or at least in parallel, they need to learn to want and need innovation.

Becoming innotropic

With innotropic I think I may be creating a new word, at least in the use that I intend.  When I write about innotropic, or innotropism, I mean that companies in their corporate heads and hearts must learn to desire and "need" innovation in the way that plants need the sun.  We should consider how that could happen and why it is not the case for most corporations today.

While I am using more human terms for a business (heads and hearts) what I mean is that within the corporate strategy, intent and purpose, as well as the leadership (heads), there must be a desire for innovation, and within the corporate culture and operating system (hearts), there must be a desire for innovation.  Too often the culture overwhelms whatever the heads may want to do.

Why innovation is not as desired as stability

Don't misunderstand me here.  Every company and every management team wants an occasional innovation.  What management team doesn't want the next iPhone in their segment or industry?  But their desires are for bluebirds that happen spontaneously, rather than for consistent, continuous innovation.  There are a host of reasons for the lack of continuous innovation focus, most of them related to how executives and companies are measured and rewarded, and the risk factors associated with innovating and failing to achieve the next iPhone.

Rather, most companies are built to be efficiency engines, keeping a constant, steady state of efficient operations and predictable outcomes.  Which, by the way, is not a bad thing and is easily rewarded on Wall Street.  It is also easier to manage, less risky and far more predictable.  Over the years, this focus on efficiency and predictability has taught people, management and especially the corporate culture to seek stability and sustainability.  So one could argue that most firms are sustainotropic, constantly seeking to maintain a reasonable equilibrium and predictable operations.

How to create an innotropic company

If you'd seek to make a company more innotropic, how might you do that?  How can you create an organization that constantly seeks innovation the way a plant seeks the sun?  It's possible, but not easy.

The first thing to do is to put a change program in place, that focuses on defining the strategy for innovation and ensuring everyone understands the strategy and can get behind the strategy, or get off the bus.  The second thing to do is to examine the things that motivate and reward people, usually compensation, recognition and rewards.  Look at how people are compensated and rewarded for their work, actions and outcomes.  Do these things support innovation or stability?

Third, focus on the behaviors, stories, informal power structures and other "hard" and "soft" features of your culture, which will formally and informally direct how people think and act.  When the culture encourages people to seek innovation, and the reward structure supports innovation, and the executive team and its strategy plans for innovation, the company will become more innotropic.

How to kill innotropism

We cannot fail to mention here that while difficult to create, innotropism is relatively easy to kill.  Unlike plants, which require the sun to produce nutrients, companies don't need innovation in the short run.  Therefore, the conditions for innovation must be constantly supported, and the investments and development models and executive support for innovation must be unwavering.  The easiest way to kill innotropism, or innovation generally, is to build up an innovation task force and then pay lip service to the ideas that are generated, or to pull key people from the program into another task.  Any signal that a company is wavering or unserious about its focus on innotropism will be enough to kill it.

Aren't we really talking about culture

After all of this talk about innotropism, by now you've realized that what I am really talking about is culture.  If you've arrived at that conclusion, you are correct.  Good innovators have cultures that support and sustain innovation.  But in this post, and in your thinking, I wanted to take it further.  What would happen if the company was organized, motivated and incentivized to constantly seek innovation?

What would that company look like, act like, and focus on?  What would be required for a company to perform in that way?  I think at the most basic level, the need for innovation, for growth, for creating really interesting and valuable products, services and business models, and recognizing that they have a limited lifespan and must be constantly replaced, is the kernal of the operating system of an innotropic company, and I hope soon we'll see more companies that are formed and grow with this intent in mind.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:22 AM 0 comments