Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Innovation Depth makes the Difference

I've been thinking about innovation for a while now, trying to puzzle out why some organizations seem to be able to innovate almost effortlessly while others are more sporadic or face significant innovation challenges.  At some moments in my career I've blamed this phenomenon on lack of breadth - the idea that too many companies shrink innovation activities down to idea generation and rapid evaluation.  This isn't completely wrong, there still is a lack of innovation process breadth and not enough appreciation for the thoughtful exploration and divergence in the 'front end' of innovation, followed by rapid prototyping and realization in the latter stages. 

However, I'm warming to the idea that the real problem with innovation, the real reason so few organizations can perform innovation effectively, is a lack of depth.  Because even if we get the innovation process (steps, activities, tools, methods) right and follow them carefully, a lack of depth constantly slows or distracts innovation teams.

Let's set our definitions

When I'm talking about innovation breadth, I mean from the start of an innovation activity (typically an executive who needs a new product or service or wants to attack an emerging opportunity) through to product or service realization.  Now honestly some of that breadth is in product or service development, not necessarily the responsibility of the innovation team, but to fully count as innovation we need to release a product or service that has impact on customers and the bottom line.

Too few companies have a good understanding of the 'front end' and the important activities and processes, but many can stumble through.  What we need to turn our attention to is the depth question.

When I'm talking about innovation depth I'm talking about capacity building - people with deep skills or experience using the tools and methods defined in the innovation process.  I'm talking about a depth of commitment of those people, who aren't rushed into and out of an innovation activity but can commit the time necessary to do it right.  I'm talking about the depth of commitment of the organization, so that innovation isn't a flavor of the month.  When we talk about innovation depth we are talking about the recognized 'range' of innovation outcomes (I like Doblin's ten types).  Depth also embraces the corporate culture and how it enables or resists innovation, rewards and recognitions and so on.

In other words, innovation breadth is about defining and understanding the end to end process for innovation, the tools, processes and methods and ensuring this is continuous and whole.  Depth is about deciding how capable the innovation process, tools and people are, and how supportive the corporate culture, funding mechanisms and reward structures are, as well as ensuring that people have the necessary time to perform innovation activities effectively.

Sustaining Innovation

Now to the analysis.  Any company at any stage of its existence can stand up a team, define some simple tools and describe an innovation process.  That's not overly difficult, and as evidence shows many companies have done exactly that.  They have a defined process (on paper) and in some cases even a product or service to demonstrate as an outcome.  Frankly most of these processes are incomplete, not well thought out and excuse the pun but paper thin.

Developing the capacity to innovate, building the depth of purpose, skill, experience, time and funding, changing or rethinking rewards and how people are allocated, is a much more purposeful and taxing experience.  It requires real strategic thought because expectations and even the nature of work changes.  This is a real - I almost hate to write this - change management effort, because we are changing the expectations of at least some people, changing how they are tasked, skilled and compensated.

Having the cake without baking it

So, what I'm saying is that many companies want the outcomes of innovation, consistently and reliably, without taking the time to invest in the processes and tools and people who can make the outcomes happen.  This is worse than expecting to have a cake and eat it simultaneously. This is trying to eat the cake without bothering to bake the ingredients, perhaps not even being careful to have the right ingredients in the correct measures. 

I honestly believe these paper thin innovation processes have to change, because they cannot stand up to consistent use.  My expectation is that every company will need to do more and more innovation, and an innovation process without depth simply cannot stand.  The alternatives are to outsource innovation and hope your consultants get it right, or to develop depth in your innovation process to mature it and harden it for more consistent use.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:17 AM


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