Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Sneaky innovation

 I'd like to write today about what I call sneaky innovation.  I define sneaky innovation as the innovation work that is often started and completed in disparate locations in the business, is not strategic and is often completed without a lot of fanfare.  Sneaky innovation is about doing small but impactful innovation, without asking for permission or waiting to see who will approve.  The fact that sneaky innovation accounts for probably 30-40% of most of the innovation that gets done should tell you something:  there's a significant amount of need for new ideas and for innovation generally, but not a lot of will to seek permission, or a good sense of what the answer will be if the request is made.

Eventually the good news about sneaky innovation is that teams can demonstrate that they can get new things done.

The good things about sneaky innovation

There are several very positive attributes of sneaky innovation.  When innovation is small, kept quiet and worked on by a small team, the ideas can flow freely and new insights will emerge.  Often, starving innovation teams of resources, time and attention will require them to think more creatively and generate ideas or solutions that would not have been generated otherwise.  Sneaky innovation is often focused on process improvements and customer service or experience problems that teams can define and implement without a lot of approvals or permissions, and demonstrates that teams can identify needs, generate ideas and implement solutions often without the management team knowing, at little cost or risk.  So, sneaky innovation demonstrates that the capability to innovate exists, as well as the ability to put good ideas to work.  

The problem with sneaky innovation

There are, as you might imagine, a few problems with sneaky innovation.  For instance, sneaky innovation can't work on physical products or business model changes.  No matter how sneaky you are, someone is bound to notice a new feature or a new revenue stream or cost component.  So, if you rely on sneaky innovation for your business, you are limiting yourself to innovations and implementations that few people will notice until after the fact.

Sneaky innovation is, almost by definition, a local phenomenon.  That is, different groups will perform their version of sneaky innovation at random times, and in random ways.  There's no way to scale success from sneaky innovation, and few ways to describe how it works or how others can learn from success, since the point of sneaky innovation is not to raise too much attention to the fact that innovation is going on.

Sneaky innovation will almost always be starved for funding, but not for personnel.  People like to pull one over on their managers, so they will commit time and energy if they think the idea will succeed.  This means that ideas cannot cost a lot of money to implement or test, but can take a significant portion of peoples' time and attention.

Bottom up or top down innovation

In the past, I've tried, with great passion and hopefully deep logic, to try to illustrate why I think innovation should become a business process, ordained by the corporate executives, sustained at all levels of an organization, encouraged by culture and incentives.  However, that vision will require a new set of leaders who may be emerging, but it does not seem to sit well with existing corporate leaders who are happy to isolate innovation in R&D, or dabble in occasional innovation projects but fail to build innovation capabilities and capacity.

If we cannot build the idea of innovation as a repeatable process and a cultural phenomenon, we need to go guerilla.  Find the executives and manager who are willing to take risks, to create smaller, sneakier innovation projects.  Ideate, generate ideas and implement under the cover.  Only claim the results once the benefits are clear.  Perhaps it's time to build from the ground up, rather than from the top down.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:27 AM


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