Innovation Needs Different Thinking Horizons

by Paul Hobcraft

road-to-the-horizon_freehdw-comWe often constrain our innovation because we ‘shoe horn’ any conceptual thinking into a given time, usually the yearly budgetary plan, so it dominates the actions decided and can exercise a large influence in this constraining of ideas to realization.

We should make the case that different types of innovation operate and evolve over different time horizons and need thinking through differently.

We have three emerging horizons that need different treatment for innovation.

1. Those innovations meeting given goals that support today’s business– these should be within specified period covered by a yearly plan and cover mostly incremental innovation. They provide the source of energy to feed the future, they form our present core but are more than likely already in some form of decline, however you prop them up.

2. Objectives that are more disruptive in nature – these are often attained later, after a lot of experimenting until a clear approach emerges. These need to be progressed within the period but have a likely longer horizon, in this case our horizon two within the three horizon framework but usually more than one planning cycle of 12 months. Sometimes they can take two to three years to emerge.

3. Ideals that offer Future Radical Promise– unattainable within the usual time period, longer term, but the progress is certainly possible during and after the period planned as they move from a ‘weak signal’, detected today by probing and investigating over an extended period of time. Some of these emerge as the business of the future from exploring, experimenting and building understanding.

We should see these as entirely different in the need to manage and judge

Breaking down all of innovation into milestone achievements firstly, so time gets signaled and clarified early, the efforts ahead and resources need get ‘fleshed out’ so then we can think to apply this into a fit with our more traditional planning cycles. This will allow us to determine the commitments and resources and help qualify the returns to structure these accordingly. As we determine the portfolio of innovations we then need to apply entirely different measurement and performance criteria for each time and thinking horizon.

Our existing planning does needs to account for all three horizons, they cannot be simply fitted into one set of plans, all having clear metrics and financials. In many cases it simply ignores the differences completely and forces short cuts, dilution of a great, potentially radical idea , so it becomes ‘boiled down’ into a series of part disrupting but more often incremental innovations that fails to deliver the greatest impact that a different time and thinking approach can achieve..

Often the time horizon of possible desired innovation often has these real conflicts. The actual realities and needs of the organization, especially in the short-term, we lower the innovation impact in final delivery. We fall back on incremental solutions as the organization does not have the patience, appetite or desire to see through the potential fully.

Thinking differently requires different mind-sets.

It is such a pity the different time horizons for different types of innovation are not simply treated differently in most organizations thinking and planning. We need to ‘account’ for innovation differently.

We need to think our numbers, activities and planning differently for innovation, pure and simple. We need to ‘project’ innovation across different horizons, each with its own distinct goals, objectives, often dedicated resources and investment criteria.

Otherwise you end up with innovations that are simply incremental that competitors can easily copy, and quickly. We fall into the trap of chasing each other to the point of ever-increasing commodification, known as the race to the bottom, as you failed to invest sufficient time in building the new capacities for the future business to climb above this and put profitable distance between you and others.

Clarifying the innovation purpose and recognizing distinct differences.

Any coherency of innovations purpose, of what you want to achieve, and then set about this by simply applying this in a rigid accountancy planned way does not work. Unless you treat all the different aspects of innovation differently in planning cycles and recognize these are needed to be managed in clearly different horizons that have different criteria, you will fail.

Innovation operates through a different set of behaviours and also in its delivery commitment and purpose from ‘business as usual’; it is searching for “business not so usual’. This requires different mind-sets at the C-level and throughout the organization to explore and develop.

The need is to constantly manage different expectations of when, where and why the potential value being extracted is worth pursuing and be patient in working towards goals that strengthen over time for achieving a far greater impact and return on investment.

Breakthroughs happen but usually with a lot of hard work and dedicated sense of commitment, even when you have set backs but you need to forge this different mentality that broader innovation needs to be treated differently and where it fits within the horizon framing.

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities. Find him @paul4innovating

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