Innovation Perspectives – Do you need an innovation strategy?

This is the sixth of several ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on The Importance of Innovation Strategy:

by Jeffrey Phillips

I’ve thought for a while that it would be great to get a number of bloggers to write about the same topic, which would allow readers to have different perspectives about an innovation topic from noted (well, at least some of us are) experts in the field of innovation. Braden Kelley asked us to write about the need or importance of innovation strategy, so here’s my response to his request.

First, let’s set out that there is really no such thing as innovation strategy. Strategy is about setting out the vision and goals for your company, and what your long term objectives are. Most firms set out some vaguely worded strategy which does not lock them in too much, and which they ignore and settle into a comfortable middle ground. Innovation, on the other hand, is about finding new opportunities or new markets and creating new products, services or business models. Innovation should be in support of, and an enabler to, corporate strategy. There is no innovation strategy.

Now, once strategic goals are established, a firm should begin to ask itself, “How can innovation accelerate our goals and help us achieve differentiation or discover new markets or needs?” If you want to think of an innovation strategy, think of it as deciding whether the firm desires incremental or disruptive innovation, or open or closed innovation, or how much disruption or change the firm expects or can bear. Too many firms start innovation efforts without defining these parameters (what we call the facets of innovation) and trying to work with the project teams in this lack of definition is like watching tap dancers in a mine field. They rest very comfortably on ground that appears to be safe, and are completely unwilling to risk another step unless pushed.

What do successful firms do in regards to innovation and strategy? They define very clearly what they will and won’t do, and what they expect from innovation and from the firm in general, then they empower (I hate that word) the team to do its best. Note that Apple (top down innovators usually in skunkworks) and Gore (bottom up innovators based on core capabilities) both follow this model and have radically different organizations, but expect people within the firm to understand the strategy and to innovate to achieve the strategic goals.

Closing doors by clearly defining your strategic goals is even more important than opening them. Too many firms are afraid to place clear limits and expectations on an innovation team, and so the team flounders from one seemingly valuable opportunity to another. Most firms fail to enunciate their strategies clearly and that hampers everyday operations, and it creates difficult distractions where innovation is concerned. Clarity is called for when the team is doing new, or difficult, or risky things. Leaving the team without an understanding of its mission and how the innovation efforts supports core business strategies or needs is almost criminal, and will usually result in failure.

So, the takeaway is this: innovation is an ENABLER to corporate strategy, and what innovation needs to succeed is clarity about what is important to the business and what risks and scope are offered by the management team for any innovation to succeed.

You can check out all of the ‘Innovation Perspectives‘ articles from the different contributing authors on The Importance of Innovation Strategy by clicking the link in this sentence.

Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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