Help! Innovators Needed

One of the challenges of intrapreneurship is identifying key innovators within an organization. Despite efforts to instill a culture that champions everyone as an innovative thinker, we often find in consulting that executives want someone to whom they can look for innovation pace setting. The question often becomes how to determine who has the strongest innovation DNA. When I was enrolled in an MBA program at Elon, my instructor invited us to take a Creax assessment to analyze out ability to be creative in problem solving and idea commercialization. Last week, I ran across a blog post from my friend Jeffrey Phillips that discussed this very issue and how his firm, Ovo Innovation, approaches the challenge.

creative wordleJeffrey points out that many good innovators aren’t “mainstream” corporate types.  In fact, he argues that “they may occupy positions that aren’t exciting, or may be people who are interested in change and uncertainty, while the rest of the organization is fixated on efficiency.  In other words, some of your best innovators may be shunted to secondary positions because their insights and feedback seem like complaining about the status quo.” He then makes a series of observations about common misconceptions:

Good innovators aren’t necessarily:

  • The “Experts” – too often organizations assign innovation activities to the people who know the issue or problem exceptionally well.  But these individuals often rule out ideas and narrow the scope too quickly based on past experience.  Thecurse of knowledgeblinds many experts to opportunities, or the fact that knowledge of the past or expertise today doesn’t guarantee success tomorrow.
  • Prominent leaders.  Many good leaders achieved their roles through excellent financial prowess and are good at asking tough questions about profitability and cost.  Frequently these individuals struggle in innovation activities because the ROI is so uncertain, and they reduce the scope and possibilities to conform to their own financial models or expectations.
  • “Idea People”.  In any organization there are people who have ideas or who are very creative, but they may not be your best innovators.  Like Michael Keaton’s character in Night Shift they may record ideas (“feed the tuna fish mayonnaise”) but those ideas may not be valuable or practical or solve customer needs.

These observations are significant, because they demonstrate that there are number of desirable competencies that innovators have in common:

  • Deeply curious about how and why things work and how they can be better
  • Experimentive, willing to try things, make small tests
  • Comfortable with risk and ambiguity
  • Eager for change
  • Very empathetic to customer needs and market conditions
  • Not locked into the “way we do things”
  • Can look at problems from a new perspective or a “naive” viewpoint

In order to identify those key innovators, he recommends some different assessments:

The first we use is The Innovator’s DNA, an excellent book that calls out five characteristics of successful innovation leaders:  associating, questioning, experimenting, observing and networking.  

Next we use assessments like Foursight, which suggests that individuals have specific skills that are applicable at different phases in an innovation activity, from clarifying to ideating to developing and implementing.  This helps place the right people in the right task at the right time.

Next we assess the individual and their tolerance for risk, change and ambiguity.  Good innovators are comfortable with extending scope, doing new things, cannibalizing existing products, entering new markets. They are comfortable with ambiguity – not everything has to be perfectly understood or “black and white”.  They are often entrepreneurial, interested in new products or opportunities as opposed to supporting and sustaining the existing processes or products.

Hopefully, you can use these tools to help identify innovation talent in your organization!

 

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Does Your Company Have an Innovation Identity Crisis?

 

Intrapreneurship – some would argue it to be a subcomponent of innovation; others, an outgrowth of; still others, a precursor to. Regardless your perspective, the concept that some organizations lack the culture to innovate effectively begets the question of how to change said culture. Many wonder what makes the greatest difference in an organization’s ability to innovate. Matthew May is a blogger on innovation and consultant at EDIT Innovation. He wrote recently of the”things that prevent a company from cultivating a companywide culture of innovation:”Corporate culture

1. Innovation identity crisis. If you assume that the consultants at Booz & Co are correct, there are perhaps three distinct approaches to innovation: needs-based, market-driven, and tech-centered. The first is the “humanist” approach good designers take.  The second is the “capitalist” approach…the fast followers that optimize…like a Hyundai, or in many respects Toyota. They capitalize on Clayton Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma,” quickly copying and even improving on game-changing innovations as they hit the market. The third is the “technologist” approach, like an Apple. Many big companies simply don’t know or can’t easily conceptualize which of these categories they fall into, or should fall into, given their bench strength. 

2. Unclear innovation strategy. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School and coauthor of Playing to Win, likes to ask “given your chosen approach, where will you play and how will you win?.” It’s a question of focus, which is something different (albeit a nuanced difference) than prioritization. It’s the ability to identify what you’re going to say NO to. Steve Jobs was great at this, and you’re now seeing the clear picture under his rule become blurry. 

3. Inaccessible definition of innovation. People hear innovation and think: gizmo. Or app. Or code. Or product. Or service. Or feature. JetBlue’s founder David Neeleman said,  “Innovation is figuring how to do something better than it’s ever been done before.” 

4. No common methodology. We’re not taught in school to innovate. We lose our natural born capacity to learn and create new knowledge. Unlearn the ways of business execution and (learn to) define a problem by observing or experiencing it, guessing how to solve it, creating a solution based on that guess, and quickly seeing if what you assumed might work actually does. 

5. Methodology doesn’t feature experimentation. The mindset has to be “I think this may work so let me try it out.” Scientists work on hypotheses, which is a fancy term for guesswork. If people aren’t getting their hands dirty out in the field with users and customers, testing early low-fidelity prototypes and adjusting a solution, they won’t be able to truly innovate. 

6. Mismatched talent-to-task fit. Innovation is about divergence, rapid prototyping, testing and failure. Big outfits might go to school on Lockheed’s Skunk Works. Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s maverick Chief Engineer (broke) away from the main operation, (stole) away the hip thinkers many consider the lunatic fringe, and set up shop in secrecy to essentially get back to the garage, with the charge being to design a working prototype under a few intelligent constraints. 

May’s points are well-taken. Companies that haven’t worked through their internal language of innovation find it hard to have productive conversations about how to go about improving their ability to “do something better than it’s ever been done.” Being able to have clear definitions provides the basis for shared goals, methodology, and talent strategies.  The sharing of desired outcomes, coupled with high level commitment to venturing, is the starting point for cultural fitness. 

 

Take Away 10 and Add 6 For Innovation

 

Preparing for a monthly webinar on intrapreneurship has led me to literature searches for resources that represent thought leadership on intrapreneurship and innovation. Most of the literature recognizes the inherent dichotomy between organizations wanting to be cutting edge for the sake of competition, but not wanting the risks and change necessary to go there. Consequently, many stumble in their pursuit of innovation. The book, The Innovative CIO: How IT Leaders Can Drive Business Transformation (CA Press/Apress), addresses practical suggestions to overcome some common barriers to successful innovation. Dennis McCafferty writes that “it also demonstrates how to take advantage of your human and tech resources to effectively evaluate, track and “sell” the value of innovation within your company. The Innovation CIO coauthors Andi Mann, George Watt and Peter Matthews discuss the following 10 Ways to Kill Innovation:

 

1. Unhealthy Internal Competition  Healthy competition encourages achievement. But when employees focus more on beating each other than benefiting their organization, it’s unhealthy competition.

2. Inconsistency in Rewards  If workers feel there’s no rhyme or reason in performance awards, they’ll grow demoralized and stop trying.

3. A Culture of Intimidation  Bosses who ridicule “dumb” ideas to present themselves as “the smartest person in the room” ultimately choke innovation through fear and ridicule.

4. No Organizational Framework for Innovation  Without a companywide framework for fostering innovation, it’s difficult for lower-level managers to leverage innovation as it happens.

5. The Pursuit of Perfection  Perfectionists tend to “hide” work until they feel it’s 100% ready. But innovation thrives from collaboration and dialogue while work is in progress.

6. Protection Obsession  Company “protectors” are often guilty of shooting down any proposals that they feel will harm their organization or department.

7. Inbox Overload  A relentless barrage of emails, meetings and phone calls–many of them unnecessary–keeps CIOs and their teams preoccupied with the mundane and urgent instead of something fresh, new and valuable.

8. Voluntary Isolationism  IT teams will often “go dark” and bury themselves in projects while closing off contact with stakeholders, customers and others who can help greatly via feedback.

9. Clinging to Legacies  Outdated IT systems and processes hinder innovation. However, too many CIOs stick with them because they cost money and/or they don’t want these deployments to be perceived as “failures.”

10. No Strategic Focus  Innovation teams must always keep concrete, business-benefiting goals in mind during collaboration. Otherwise, it’s just a fun but ultimately pointless “creativity exercise.”

What is true in IT circles is true, to some extent, in any kind of business. The environment and culture have so much to do with successful innovation. Agility Innovation and Ovo Innovation, in a joint whitepaper, provided a list of 6 key capabilities needed by executives to foster the skills and capacities for innovation in their companies:

  • creating alignment,
  • deploying trusted methods and tools,
  • effective communication and engagement,
  • empowering people, providing skills,
  • refocusing attitudes, perspectives and rewards ,
  • defining a corporate “governance” for innovation

The whitepaper authors argue that  these skills or capabilities can be developed in an appropriate strategic manner when applying the Executive Innovation Workmat (shown below).  They believe that executives can be trained to both understand how to innovate and how to acquire and inspire the skills requisite to do it well. Beginning with establishing a language for innovation, complete with agreed upon definitions of key terms, a systematic approach serves organizations best. When corporate strategy and innovation have linkage, the likelihood of success goes way up!

Executive Innovation Workmat

 

 

anti-Innovation Sentiment and Intrapreneurship Collide

In order to stay current in a subject area that is constantly changing, one must be well read and, beyond that, follow the bets though leaders around. Last week, I had the opportunity to discuss intrapreneurship in person with one of my favorite innovation bloggers, Jeffrey Phillips. Tonight, I read a blog post by one of my other favorites, Gijs van Wulfen.

Gijs tackles the subject of anti-innovators in his recent post.  His writing echoes some of what Jeffrey and I discussed last week. As we  looked at different models for commercializing business ideas last week, we camped out for a while on what stultifies innovation. While many leaders acknowledge that innovation is a top priority, they would also be quick to add that implementation of innovative practices can be a challenge. The consequences, according to Phillips, include: 

 Poor execution of innovation goals
 Failure to achieve strategic goals
 Limited organizational design to sustain innovation
 The growth of disbelief or cynicism when innovation isn’t pursued.

Stubborn personvan Wulfen describes personnel as a main hindrance. He writes of employees who “are stuck in their habits.. ignorant the world is changing fast and (thinking) they have nothing to fear.” He goes on to describe the anti-innovator as a (negative) contributor to team culture:

There are often quite a few anti-innovators. Everybody knows this extravert guy or woman who is anti-everything. They have “the biggest mouth” at the lunch table in the company restaurant. Their influence on the company’s culture is often quite substantial. Don’t underestimate their impact. The herd goes as fast as the slowest animals. If the anti-innovators lean back nothing moves. So how do you get them up and running. That’s the question.

You can try to convince them. Unfortunately that often fails because they are experts in coming up with idea killers like: “We are too small for that… There is no budget… We need to do more research… We don’t have time… It’s too risky… That’s for the future. Everything is OK now.”

You can try to do it without them. But that won’t work either. You need an awful lot of colleagues and bosses to share your vision before a big change can truly take place. You need R&D engineers, production managers, IT staff, financial controllers, marketers, service people and salesmen to develop the product, produce it, get it on the market and service it. You can’t do it without them: you can’t innovate alone.

The way to get anti-innovators up and running is to respect them, to understand them, to connect with them and to let them experience change is necessary. They will only change their attitude if they get new insights themselves. So, you have to give them a chance to discover what’s happening out there. Invite them to join your innovation team and take them out on an expedition to discover how markets, customers, competitors and technology are changing.

If they, as the slowest animals of the herd, find out there’s a group of hungry lions following the herd they stop leaning backwards. They start running too as necessity is the mother of invention. They will spread the urgency to innovate among their colleagues. And that’s good news because If the slowest animals start running, your organization’s innovation power really gets up to speed.

Think about the anti-innovators in your organization. What motivates them? Do they travel in herds? How can innovators infiltrate their ranks yet respect them and build bridges for collaboration? As a mentor in an upcoming venture challenge competition, I will be working with teams that must have creatives and analysts. Often, including an anti-innovator on your launch team can bring helpful perspective. Stew on it!

 

Leadership Mindsets to Foster Innovation

When lively conversations abound on the subject of innovation, invariably, the matter of culture emerges. Does the organization have a suitable culture to nourish innovation? If not, why not? Often, management is held up as a scapegoat for the lack of innovation. Karl Ronn recently said, “Companies that think they have an innovation problem don’t have an innovation problem. They have a leadership problem.”

Scott Anthony, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review blog and managing partner of Innosight, took note of Ronn’s recent comment. Anthony  had featured Ronn in The Little Black Book of Innovation, and considers him to be “thoughtful, widely read, a seasoned practitioner, and a great communicator.” Anthony wrote of him in a recent HBR blog post:

Ronn’s basic idea was that four decades of academic research and two decades of conscious implementation of that work have provided robust, actionable answers to many pressing innovation questions. Practitioners have robust tools to discover opportunities to innovate, design, and execute experiments to address key strategic uncertainty; to create underlying systems to enable innovation in their organization; and to manage the tension between operating today’s business and creating tomorrow’s businesses. Large companies like IBM, Syngenta, Procter & Gamble, 3M, and Unilever show that innovation can be a repeatable discipline. Emerging upstarts like Google and Amazon.com show how innovation can be embedded into an organization’s culture from day one.

Pixar innovationIn Building a Growth Factory, David Duncan and Anthony suggested why many others have not been successful: too many companies use point solutions to address a systematic challenge. They may offer an idea challenge, ideation session, growth group, corporate venturing arm or incentives for innovation…

(writes Anthony,) “None of these is bad, but point solutions don’t solve system-level problems. Duncan and I suggest working on four systems — a growth blueprint, production systems, governance and controls, and leadership, talent, and culture. It isn’t easy to do all of that, but it is what is required to really make innovation work at scale.” (continuing:)

Ronn agrees, but notes that the responsibility for such systemic work ultimately rests with a company’s leadership team. And it’s absolutely necessary. Research by Clayton Christensen, Rita McGrath, Richard D’aveni, and Richard Foster make very clear that we are in a new era where competitive advantage is a transitory notion. (McGrath’s forthcoming book is provocatively titled The End of Competitive Advantage.) Any executive that doesn’t make innovation a strategic priority, ensure there is ample investment in it, and approach the problem strategically is committing corporate malfeasance.

Further, leaders can’t just set the context and hope that innovation happens. Innovation is enough of an unnatural act in most companies (which were built to scale yesterday’s business model, not discover tomorrow’s) that it requires the day-by-day attention of the company’s top leadership team or it simply won’t stick.

The leadership challenge facing executives today is to balance today’s needs versus tomorrow’s. In the current environment, productivity and risk management are priorities. In the longer run, being able to anticipate market needs and adjust one’s go-to-market strategy are critical. Leaders must now be good at both to create and sustain competitive advantage. 

Anthony acknowledges that, to justify why innovation is a struggle, leaders mention factors such as “short-term pressures from investors, talent deficiencies, the challenge of implementing innovation-friendly rewards structures, the still fuzzy nature of innovation, and, in candid moments, their own discomfort with the different mental frames required to lead innovation.”

Most importantly, the paradigm shift needs to occur whereby the goal moves from being most innovative among a peer group of companies to being cutting edge like some of the upstart organizations known for redefining the playing field.