I’m going to let you in on a secret. Doing innovation isn’t really all that hard, once you get the hang of it. Yes, there are dozens of methodologies and approaches. You can tap into your employees and/or your customer base for ideas. You can search for interesting technologies in research labs and universities. You can prototype, test and tweak ideas based on customer pilots. In fact, you can do just about anything in innovation. That is, if you can get it started.
What few people seem to realize, except innovation consultants, is that innovation is the proverbial irresistible force. Once the momentum gets started and people understand what to do, innovation can become a powerful force. That’s not to say there aren’t resisters along the way, but as people gain skills and insights, and get to create new things of value, innovation can take on a life of its own. But this is predicated on overcoming the immovable object – inertia, distraction, focus on other priorities, budgets, short term thinking. Call it what you will, there is a huge barrier to getting started.
In the last few weeks we’ve been approached by several firms who want to become more innovative. They have executive backing to start an innovation team and want to create an innovation discipline, not just deliver one innovative product or service. Having been to a few of these rodeos, I can tell them exactly what will happen – which is, distraction. You see, innovation is important, but rarely urgent. The urgent stuff constantly creeps in to disrupt the important. An executive meeting scheduled for January to approve an innovation project was pushed off to March due to other priorities. Funding for an innovation team was held up due to a poor quarter. Simply getting started with an innovation effort is a monumental task. There are several reasons why this is true.
Everyone’s an innovator until the money is due
CEOs regularly respond to surveys stating that innovation is one of their top three priorities. Yet a recent NSF survey reported that only 20% of manufacturing companies and 8% of services companies reported a significant innovation over a three year period. There’s a big talking-doing gap, created because there are rewards for simply talking about innovation, but definite costs for doing something.
Covey was right
The urgent always overcomes the important, and today is far more urgent than tomorrow is important. Creating an innovation team, capability or discipline is an investment in the future and a cost today. Given the competitive nature of the current business environment, it is easy to emphasize costs and efficiency today rather than profits and possibilities in the future. Innovation is almost always important but not urgent, and when it is urgent that is a signal that you are too late.
Nothing and nobody likes change, and our business as usual cultures have adapted themselves well to an effective, efficient capability. We’ve honed our operating models to peak efficiency, but in doing so made them far less flexible, less nimble and much more suspicious of change. Doing anything new or different creates distractions, forces change and uncertainty on people and programs that have spent years avoiding change and uncertainty. Inertia and fear of the unknown make innovation difficult to start.
Get a plan and get moving
The old joke goes – don’t just do something, stand there – and it’s reasonably true. While I encourage my clients to get started as quickly as possible, because inevitably innovation will be derailed and delayed, you can’t just take a running leap. You need some semblance of a plan, and if you aren’t given one by a sponsor, then just make one up and dare people to tell you you are wrong. Define your plan, and get started as quickly as possible. You will face delays, but by the time the slothful operations and engines of your business realize what you’ve done, their only argument will be that they aren’t ready. They can’t debate the importance of innovation and can only quibble about your goals and direction.
You will face the important/urgent dichotomy, and you will face resistance, and you will face inertia as a team starting an innovation effort. You can allow and accept that, which will lead to questions six months down the road about what you’ve accomplished. Little or nothing. Or, you can define a plan and strike out quickly, forcing the naysayers to catch up. Believe me, it is better to be out ahead, with a head of steam, than trying to justify your important but not urgent project.
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 innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.