“The Value of an Idea Lies in the using of it”…Thomas Edison

A few years ago, the World Economic Forum listed 10 innovative jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago:  application developer, social media manager, Uber driver, driverless car engineer, cloud computing specialist, big data analyst/data scientist, sustainability manager, YouTube content creator, drone operator, millennial generational expert.  But how do those jobs come about and how do organizations drive innovation?

How did those innovative jobs come about?  Here are some things organizations do to drive innovation:

  • Embed innovative roles in commercial teams
  • Create insulated innovation team (e.g., Google X) or innovation labs (e.g., Lowe’s)
  • Rotate business-side people through the innovation group — often to provide commercial expertise, or help make introductions to customers who might be willing to test something new and provide feedback
  • Or the reverse — export innovation team members to the business unit that will be responsible for launching a project, so there’s someone involved who is knowledgeable and passionate about it.

Yet, trying to embed innovation still seems to fail – and the question is why? According to Scott Kirsner in an HBR article in April 2017, “The Stage Where Most Innovation Projects Fail” research shows most innovative projects fail when the effort is made to transition them to the commercial team. The feedback from 164 executives at companies with more than $1 billion in revenue:

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  • 26% of respondents said the transition from innovation or R&D group to the business unit “needs serious work” at their company
  • 16% described the transition as “terrible”
  • Most respondents admitted that there was room for improvement

The transitions seem to have little to no accountability, inadequate communications, no ownership from the business team, no teams moving from the innovation lab to the commercial side to help with the roll-out, and insufficient resources to solving issues that happen. In effect, the failures are based on:

  • A lack of accountability and incentives
  • Not a priority by leadership
  • Success no adequately measured – not factoring in inadequately funded projects
  • The idea may not solve a problem identified by the commercial team or by the market?

However, an even bigger potential reason innovation fails is because the company is trying to embed innovation into the existing corporate process. In McKinsey’s, “Creating an innovation culture,” the author Dr. Waguih Ishak suggests that an innovation culture needs to be created– not become part of the existing process per se.

But in a 9.11.17 HBR piece by Steve Blank and Pete Newell, “What Your Innovation Process Should Look Like,“ the suggestion is that a process is needed that operates with speed and urgency, and that helps innovators and other stakeholders to curate and prioritize problems, ideas, and technologies. So, a process yes, but not one based on what most of corporate processes are based on:  ensuring consistency, no surprises, and adherence to regulatory and legal standards. The process they recommend is to help innovative ideas move quickly. But a lot of the suggestions are in line with others addressing accountability, resourcing, external networking, collecting data and supporting the transition process.

And as ideas or innovations are brainstormed, the “politics” of innovation come into play. In an HBR piece from 11.30.17, “How to Navigate the Politics of an Innovation Project,” the author Brian Uzzi suggests the challenge is that meaningful innovation can be disruptive. Innovation requires organizational resources shifted without definitive proof of future returns. Thus, innovation is political. His suggestion is to anticipate resistance, understand the political issues, find a champion and get proof of the innovation’s potential.

As it’s getting a bit confusing, let’s just ask what the process is that Google uses. I highlighted the ones I particularly like as they challenge traditional corporate thinking:

  1. Let your mission guide you
  2. Think big, start small
  3. Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection — Google wasn’t the first to “search,” but they did it better
  4. Look for ideas everywhere
  5. Share everything — Google shares the entire Board Letter with all employees quarterly and presents the same slides presented to the Board of Directors in a company-wide meeting
  6. Spark with imagination, support with data — Data should substantiate your idea
  7. Be a platform — Let independent developers broaden the ideas
  8. Never fail to fail

So, in looking at all the do’s and don’ts it looks like there are ways to address embedding innovation in their organization and then how innovation needs to be “done.”  So, for what it’s worth, here’s guidance to how to address innovation in a company and I call it something that completely fails in the innovation category:  “7-step guide for innovation”  Good Luck!

1)  Report to the Executive Committee:  The innovation team must report directly to the company’s executive committee to ensure ownership, accountability and incentives, as well as to allow a direct route to leadership to support resource allocation and individuals to champion projects

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2)  Team Members Need to Rotate:  The team may have consistent leadership but members need to be continually rotated in/out from various functions within the company.  It can be considered a ‘reward’ of kind

3)  Charter for Innovation Team:  There must be a charter for the team to ensure any brainstorming is within some boundaries; they also must follow company mission and objectives. This also should include the need to be open and transparent about ideas

4)  Members Must Interact Internally/Externally:  Each member must have responsibility to participate in external activities as well as participate in internal activities to foster innovative ideas

5)  Ongoing Communication about the Innovation Team Activities: The activities of the team (not just outcomes) need to be communicated to the rest of the organization in a consistent manner (including successes and failure) and also enable people within the organization to offer suggestions

6)  Data to Fine-Tune Ideas Required: Once something is identified as a potential opportunity to commercialize or implement, data needs to be obtained to determine viability and potential success

7)  Innovation Factored into Function – with support and guidance from executive leadership