Usually, innovation roadblocks exist because current practices help staff to accomplish certain objectives, and shaking things up will threaten those aims. Perhaps these objectives have not been officially articulated -- and they may create benefits more for individuals than for the company -- but they are quite real, and all the trappings of innovation (one can imagine a vast sea of ping-pong tables and purple paint) will not obscure the fact that the organization adheres to these anti-innovation priorities.
Rather than leaping for the paint cans, or even planning a series of capability-building initiatives, organizations do best when they start an innovation program by following three simple principles:
- Begin with the innovation strategy -- Just as companies succeed in the market by choosing where to keenly focus, so too should organizations tie an innovation program to a handful of core objectives. Those objectives should be linked closely to business strategies, so that when embracing innovative behaviors entails costs (in terms of staff focus, embracing upfront inefficiencies, and protecting some small long-term investments) there is a clear business justification for sticking with the innovation program. The innovation strategy should include elements such as a high-level portfolio plan for how much effort should be expended on what types of innovations (disruptive, sustaining, open, business model, etc.). It should also spell out how innovation plays a role in accomplishing major business objectives, what that means in terms of specific capabilities needed, and what is the exact nature of the capability gap. The innovation strategy says nothing about how these gaps will be filled. Instead, it is a way to align key decision-makers around priorities so that they stick by them, and so that the innovation program can focus its energies on making an impact where it matters most.
- Think concurrently about broad capability-building and specific innovation projects -- An innovation program need not entail focus just on far-out concepts. It may include tools that help innovate in the everyday business, mechanisms to foster better cross-functional collaboration, competitions across the organization, suggestion programs, awards, performance metrics, and many other elements. It is important to launch the program elements in a phased manner, so that the first priorities clearly support the innovation strategy, cause minimal dislocation, and have an obvious demonstration effect. Specific innovation projects can do this. The projects may involve creating new concepts as well as rolling out mechanisms like competitions or suggestion programs in highly targeted ways that ensure extensive participation and impact.
- Create pull from the organization and change agents to meet grassroots demand -- Change seldom works when it relies solely on a push from above. In large organizations, inertia will fight all but the most focused initiatives, and ultimately a program to build innovation capabilities has to become quite multi-dimensional. The alternative is to combine senior-level support and a basic innovation program infrastructure with grassroots demand from deep within business units for the "secret sauce" that has clearly succeeded elsewhere. The specific projects referenced above can create this demonstration effect. Then, change agents seeded throughout the organization can help to translate the program to varying business unit and functional contexts (the innovation needs of people in supply chain management will be vastly different from those in research). Change agents were over-used and then maligned during the 1980s, but the basic concept still makes a great deal of sense. There should be a relative handful of people with deep training in innovation approaches and the organization's program, supplemented by short training / corporate communication for the vast bulk of staff.
This post was written by Steve Wunker. Click for more of New Markets' thinking on innovation capabilities.