Watching all the developments in the innovation space you’d be forgiven for thinking that you can become an innovative company by simply having an innovation process and throwing in a few innovation tools and hey presto, Apple here we come! Wrong… sorry if it were that easy everyone would be doing it and we’d be overwhelmed with innovation. The reality is that innovating consistently and constantly is achieved by very few companies. What we hear less about is the companies who’ve tried some form of innovation activity and failed. I don’t mean a 70% or 80% failure rate but a 100% failure rate. Now failure is not a bad thing and is actually an essential part of the innovation process, but out of the failure you hope some gems will come forth offsetting all the failures.
There is a huge industry building around the whole innovation space and there are more public speakers on the subject than I can count. A lot of what I hear is quite simply common sense that doesn’t take a genius to figure out and lot of it is just high level stuff that gives no clues in how to execute innovation. We can all talk about common sense things and strategy at a high level but very few can talk about what it takes to execute an innovation strategy successfully. I do wonder if the industry is just perpetuating the innovation hype to continue the dollars rolling in for whatever innovation thing they happen to be touting around. This is bad news for people who are committed to innovation and want to see some real innovation happen because where the hype goes so does expectation. When innovation successes fail to materialise the hype is followed by disillusionment and this can result in a real disappointment and cynicism for innovation. The damage from this could really harm innovation to the point that companies just decide its not worth investing in again, or at least don’t try innovation again for many years.
So what does it really take to be an innovative company? Yes a process is important and yes tools are important but they’re actually some of the lesser important things. Many successfully innovative companies have these tools and processes, but these are a peripheral to what’s really enabling innovation in the company. The real enablers for innovation are hidden beneath the surface and are often not even apparent to those working in an innovative company. What’s important for innovation is:
- The right culture and behaviours
- Senior level management commitment
- Having people who understand innovation
- Having the right creative types in an integrated organisation
- A route to market for testing concepts
The right culture and behaviours – this is probably one of the biggest barriers and enablers for innovation. The culture of the company is what will ultimately make innovation fail or succeed. Innovation requires a culture that is open to new ideas regardless of where they come from. Companies that have strong functions, particularly Marketing, that think it’s their job in the company to come up with new ideas or that their ideas should get higher priority than anyone else are simply wasting all that latent knowledge, talent and capability in the organisation. There are lots of studies about culture and a strong view that you can’t change your companies culture, at least not easily, so its therefore important to focus on the behaviours. Reinforce positive behaviours for innovation and eventually the culture will follow. As a company you need to identify the key behaviours that are important for innovation and then put in a plan for making those behaviours happen. Start small, start on a key group of influencers and let their influence permeate throughout the company. It’s like nurturing a small plant; keep watering it and watch it grow. Another important factor in the culture of an innovative company is freeing up people to work on innovation. So often the innovators in a company are people who have an important day job that their line managers will be reluctant to let them leave even temporarily. How are you going to free these people up without having a battle with line managers every time you need to do this?
Senior level management commitment is more than just unleashing a few junior managers to go innovate or that. Putting a CxO’s name on an initiative doesn’t means their sponsorship guarantees success. That’s not going to work in a lot of companies unless its a truly flat hierarchy with a really democratic culture. Board level members make key strategic decisions about the companies future and are often involved in the execution of projects that are deemed critical for the company. Innovation too should be firmly in that critical category with direct board level involvement. Senior people need to be running the innovation effort or at least be heavily involved in it. It’s their day to day involvement in innovation projects that’s showing the company they are leading by example. Marshalling important but finite resources will also often require senior management involvement to secure those resources whether it be money or people. If innovation is really the route to success then the most senior people in the company should be involved in it and not leaving it to someone else.
Having people who understand innovation. People who understand some of the deep cultural and organisational changes that are necessary to become an innovative company are a must. These aren’t people who just understand what an innovation process or funnel is, but can understand the often hidden or subtle signs that point to innovation blockers. These people are politically savy enough to know who needs influencing and who’s support they need to get the innovation effort to succeed. These people probably aren’t the innovators (but they can be) but rather focus on removing the roadblocks to a more innovative environment.
Having the right creative types in an integrated organisation. Innovation requires creative people because make no mistake innovation is born out of a creative process not a logical one. These are the people who think differently, people who constantly seeking new meanings in things, people who test new ideas on themselves as well as customers. These are people who are so passionate about what they do that they immerse themselves in it. These are the innovators and can they can be anywhere inside the company, the key is unleashing them and their talent. However having such people inside the organisation may not always be possible so in that case the organisation has to seek out partnerships with such people to collaborate on new ideas and concepts. Too many companies create bland offerings because the corporate environment is about safety and not creativity. Innovation is an art and has to be treated as such. But creative people won’t succeed on their own and this is where an integrated organisation is important. It doesn’t matter that you have the best innovators in the world in your company because if you can’t pull the various strands across the company to implement the ideas then you’ll hit a brick wall. When working on innovation there are many people involved in the chain from idea to conception. An integrated organisation brings together the people who are responsible for each component of the chain. In these companies people work in less formal hierarchical structures (at least some of the time) but more in a project based environment where people from across the company come together to achieve a common set of objectives. Question companies need to ask themselves is how do you create an integrated organisation to deliver? The one other thing that I’ll add is you need passionate people. People who care and love what they do. These are people who ooze enthusiasm about what they’re doing. Do you have such people in the company?
A route to market for testing concepts. Everyone knows that innovation can be a hit an miss affair. Various research studies for example conclude over 67% of new product launches fail within the first twelve months. Therefore anyone bringing new innovations to market needs to be able to test ideas and concepts directly with customers. It’s important that there is that direct relationship with customers so you can observe first hand what they think of your innovations.
In summary I hope this gives people some food for thought. Innovation isn’t just something companies can wake up and say “we’re going to be innovative now” and learn from a text book. Innovation is a capability that takes serious time and effort to nurture and there will be many failures along the way. Innovation is about getting underneath the surface and looking at the process start to finish and asking yourself what works and what doesn’t work and then having the power to change what doesn’t work and strengthen what does work. Innovation will be contending for finite resources with the BAU stuff which is never an easy debate to win. What works will be different for every company because every company has a unique character. The trick is working out what works for your company.