What a Decade of Innovation Teaches Us

by Jeffrey Phillips

I’ve been pondering for several weeks, at least since the start of the new year, the state of play of innovation in large corporations. I think I can speak with some knowledge about this, having conducted innovation activities and projects in a wide array of Fortune 500 companies, having talked and been in sales processes with far more, and having conducted innovation programs, training and presentations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central and South America, as well as North America.  Thus, I’ve got a few bona fides where innovation is concerned, a lot of successes and a few scars as well.

After more than a decade of doing innovation work, there are some simple truths I’d like to impart.  None of them are especially shocking, but for some reason, they need constant reinforcement.  Almost every new innovation activity seems destined to experience some, if not all, of the same challenges and traps that previous innovation programs encountered, so it behooves us to document and illustrate these simple roadblocks if possible, to improve innovation outcomes and help companies just starting out to avoid some pitfalls.

Where to begin

The problem with identifying common innovation roadblocks or pitfalls is to consider or define where to begin and what scope to explore.  For those who know us, we’ll always start with the most divergent, expansive scope possible, if for no other reason than you never get to explore such a broad scope in any other business activity.  And this is the first lesson:

Never miss a chance to expand the scope, conduct more discovery or exploration than is anticipated or expected.

The vast majority of business activity seeks effectiveness and efficiency, which by definition requires past experience, knowledge, and expertise.  This, in turn, leads to rapid convergent thinking and discourages or squelches creativity, exploration, and discovery.  But these last three ideas – creativity, exploration, and discovery – are where the really interesting and potentially disruptive ideas occur.  If you want innovation, teach people and encourage them to explore and experiment.  Encourage divergent thinking.  Start your activity with the broadest possible scope, the most interesting challenges.  Because our natural inclination is convergence, reducing variability and risk, every decision, every investment, every inclination will be to reduce scope, limit thinking, limit risk thereafter.  It is in your best interest to start as broadly as possible because you will surely find the scope and activity increasingly limited and resisted thereafter.

Ignore the promises

In many organizations, innovation teams are assigned and directed to do something interesting long after the executives have promised Wall Street, investors, and others that innovation is just around the corner.  Many innovation teams feel hemmed in by promises of new products and services, and often seek to tailor innovation activities to past corporate communications, rather than to what the company can do and its customers’ needs.  If at all possible, the second lesson is:
Do the innovation that is right, in the timing that is right, based on the needs that customers have, rather than configure innovation activities to meet corporate communications.

Often it’s not realistic or even possible to achieve what has been promised, and trying to do so will simply result in unimportant and uninteresting innovation at best.  Rather, create a meaningful success and build on it by focusing on innovation that matters to customers, than you can create, and that you can use as a successful illustration of the capability of the company.  I’ve found that executives are willing to listen to teams and revise expectations, which leads to more success, rather than simply trying to accommodate years of talk about innovation that were just that – talk.

Innovation is different

When we work with companies to conduct innovation activities, it’s not unusual to find that an innovation team has already been chosen.  Typically this team is made up of people who’ve been very successful in the existing products and processes, and who are often doubly or triply loaded with additional work.  The lesson here is that:

People who are really good at “business as usual”, efficient and effective, aren’t the best people for innovation.  The thinking must change, expectations must change and different tools must be introduced.

Here again, it can be difficult to say to a management team “thanks, but can we have a different team?”  But the difference between a successful outcome and a well-managed failure is the difference between people who are truly innovative and those that understand how to manage an efficient internal project.

Innovation is innate

Many companies and people believe that “everyone can innovate”.  This simply isn’t true.  Everyone can have ideas and can imagine new products or services, but few are good at identifying customer needs, generating meaningful ideas and eventually realizing those ideas as new products and services.  This leads to another lesson:
Good innovation requires new tools and skills, and people who are ready to think differently, together
You wouldn’t take a handful of your corporate execs and expect them to compete effectively against an NBA team without training and skill development, but we continually gather executives and staff and ask them to do important work with little or no training, no new tools and little teaming.  Even if you can find the most innovative people, they still need time to gain skills and experience.  After all, the next innovation project most people do will be the first innovation project most of them have ever done.

Passion versus Culture

No matter how good or how passionate people are about customer needs, new revenues or good ideas, passionate people cannot win over a resistant corporate culture.  Here comes the next lesson:
Innovative companies have cultures that encourage and sustain innovation.  Most likely, your culture doesn’t.  Executives must get busy ensure that it does.
Every time I write this, or something like it, I’m reminded of the old wisdom:  give a man a fish, he eats today.  Teach a man to fish, he eats forever.  The same is true of innovation and culture.  Any company can push an idea through to realization once, against the corporate culture.  However, the people who experience that trauma will never want to do it again.  If you want sustained innovation, you must examine your culture and make important and lasting change so that it encourages and sustains innovation.  In fact, it’s often better to focus first on changing the culture, then trying to innovate, than attempting innovation without addressing the culture.

More of these in latter posts as I have the energy and time…

image credit: bigstockphoto.com

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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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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