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.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:48 AM


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