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The focus that turns innovation from gurgle to Google

20 Aug

“Just How Valuable Is Google’s 20% Time?” asks Michael Schrage on the Harvard Business Review blog.

Whether 20% time is right or wrong, the core issue around disruptive innovation is to actually give it attention.  Most companies don’t.  Day-to-day survival mode usually elbows aside time for strategic thinking about the future, and yet many executives either assume or hope that big ideas will just emerge regardless.

Innovation needs intentional focus – whether that’s a set of strategic questions that every employee is continually trying to solve; or a workplace that is strategically designed to encourage serendipitous innovation collisions; or a chunk of time that you get to play with as you wish…whatever approaches you want to take, you need to do something deliberate to pull more of tomorrow into today.


How much does your innovation weigh?

5 Aug


Four quotes from an innovation powerhouse reveal a lot about why so many companies find innovation difficult.

“We do pay-as-you-go innovation around here.” Not what I expected to hear from a senior executive inside one of Forbes Magazine’s most innovative organisations.  “We innovate when one of two things happen: either there’s a crisis or we need to launch a product,” he added, to emphasise the point.

What he meant was that the company lacked a strategic, holistic approach to innovation.  Not exactly making it up as they went along, but not far from it.

An hour later I’m with some managers in the company’s IT department.  “Most of our innovation is creating workarounds to make someone else’s half-baked idea actually work,” they tell me.

The day ends with a group of sales managers and we finally get to the core issue: “Thinking about the future is a luxury here,” I’m told with a regretful tone.

Innovation Groundhog Day?

Maybe I chose a bad day to start this particular innovation assessment; but in reality, the same underlying attitudes about innovation prevail in most companies. The short-term focused “pay-as-you-go” approach creates temporary spikes in performance for some parts of the company, but they are often accompanied by costs elsewhere, notably:

  • Short-lived returns – Reactive innovation tends to yield only short-term, tactical advantages that are easily copied by competitors.  There’s always a place for this approach as part of a broader innovation strategy, but if all of your innovation falls into this category you risk being terminally locked into industry dogfights or eventually answering the door to the corporate grim reaper.
  • Blander, slower innovation – Left to its own devices, innovation inevitably happens at the point of greatest immediate need.  Usually, that means it emerges at a team or divisional level, and often without adequately including the stakeholders who will help implement and improve the idea.  As the weary IT managers told me, the outcome is often a series of workarounds that ultimately slow down execution.

What’s happening is an innovation disconnect on a huge scale: innovation driven by the short-term needs of individual functions, but disconnected from the wider stakeholders and long-term strategy of the rest of the organisation.

 Innovating Innovation

So what’s the alternative? “Get joined up and get strategic”, is the clear message from two recent reports by Accenture and Cap Gemini.  Performance sky-rockets when organisations think holistically about innovation, they conclude.

That’s all very well but where do you start?  We encourage organisations to be intentional about four essential parts of an effective innovation ecosystem:

  1. Creating strategic focus: Great innovators make great questions the focus of their corporate innovation.  The creative freedom to explore a constrained question is the nitro and glycerin of the front-end of the innovation process.  In the last 12-18 months, designing what we call “brilliant questions” has become one of DPA’s most sought after services.
  2. Discovery-led innovation tools: 90% of product launches fail, often because they are based on faulty initial assumptions about the customer.  Giving employees tools that help them discover deep customer insights, develop ideas with strong competitive advantage and then run low-cost experiments to test underlying assumptions, are essential ingredients to high-performing innovation.  The tools at the heart of Lean Start Up, Blue Ocean Strategy and Business Model Generation are transforming performance inside many of the organisations that we work with.
  3.  Culture and Climate: Peter Drucker famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, a perspective ultimately proven to be true by a great deal of research.  A culture that supports innovation needs leaders who value things that have been gagged and bound in the basement of most companies: embracing uncertainty and ambiguity; making decisions with much less than 100% of information; encouraging risk-taking; making space for great ideas that have no natural home in the current structure; and learning from failure.  Business model issues aside, leadership development programmes must start to devote more than a one-hour slot to these crucial innovation performance drivers.
  4.  Fuel: Beyond ideas and processes, innovation needs fuel.  It comes in many forms not least dedicated time, employee motivation, cross functional collaboration, engineered serendipity (80% of ideas happen outside meetings) and leadership sponsors. Oh, and budgets.  They’re all essential in oiling the wheels of innovation from the initial creative spark through to pushing past the final bits of red tape that are still trying to kill the idea before it launches.

 Expedient vs Heavy Innovation

Sometimes ‘fixing innovation’ can seem too complex and difficult to contemplate.  The good news is that any leader or manager who chooses to become more intentional about innovation can pursue a long-term strategy of incremental improvements in these four areas that ultimately deliver compelling competitive advantage.

If that’s you, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a mantra that’s worth pinning up in your office.  Quoting economist Benjamin Graham in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, Bezos said, “In the short term, the stock market is a voting machine. In the long term, it’s a weighing machine. And we try to build a company that wants to be weighed and not voted upon.”

How heavy is the innovation strategy in your organisation?

This article is also published on the DPA blog:

De-risking Innovation the Smart Way

4 Jan

Taking Smart Risks book coverIf there’s one thing guaranteed to lighten the pallor of an executive’s face, it’s the suggestion of taking more risk.

Need more breakthrough innovation? Sure. What’s the catch? The clue is in the adjective: breakthrough innovation requires a degree of breakage en-route. That means taking risks that don’t always pay off.

It stands to reason: in a turbulent, uncertain and complex economic climate there are few ‘knowns’. New product development in particular has become a voyage into the unknown with companies using intelligent trial and error techniques such as Lean Start Up.

But in most cases, the perceived negative implications of a risk-gone-wrong stifles the very innovation that organisations so desperately need.

That makes Doug Sundheim’s Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes Are High a timely and welcome guide for organisations that want to do just what the title says.

Five steps to smarter risk-taking

Doug gave me a sneak preview of the book before Christmas and I found it to be a rare and accessible blend of research, insight, wisdom and practical tools that deserves a place in every executive briefcase.

Taking Smart Risks offers readers five smooth stones to slay the ‘fear-giants’ that crush smart risk-taking in their organisations:

1. Find Something Worth Fighting For

  • Something Worth Fighting For (SWFF) is what all smart risks have in common.
  • It must be simple, stir emotion, lend itself to a story or narrative and inspire action.

2. See the Future Now

  • Ask questions, understand concerns, test the concept behind your ideas, and predict as many fail points in advance as you can.
  • Have an open, honest conversation with trusted people around you to determine what is the worst that could really happen.

    Doug Sundheim

    Doug Sundheim

3. Act Fast, Learn Fast

  • Start before you know where to start, fail early, often, and smart – build learning into everything and stay humble.
  • Accept that you have to live with failure – since it is an inevitable by-product of taking risks, even smart risks. Failing smart is the best way to learn.

4. Communicate Powerfully

  • Expect communication to breakdown and plan accordingly.
  • Share thought processes, meet regularly, and don’t avoid difficult conversations.

5. Create a Smart Risk Culture

  • Define a smart failure – the acceptable boundaries within which it is okay to fail.
  • Reward both the successes and these smart failures.

Every chapter ends with a clutch of useful tools to help readers de-risk risk-taking. If you’re short on time, just read the handy chapter summaries and start playing with the techniques that Sundheim suggests.

If you’re serious about innovation, growth or even plain survival, risk-taking is non-negotiable. Sundheim’s book doesn’t guarantee a failure-free future (what a relief as so much crucial learning happens when we fail!), but it will help leaders and managers in every organisation improve the quality of their risk taking.

The hardcover and Kindle versions of Taking Smart Risks: How Sharp Leaders Win When Stakes Are High are out now.

How to Build Innovation Super Teams

13 Jun

“How can we become more like Apple? Or Google?”

I get asked that question a lot. Five years of economic turmoil have created a huge appetite among CEOs for creativity and innovation.

Yet that appetite often comes with the indigestion of previous, failed attempts to increase innovation. Despite the thousands of how-to books and seminars, and armies of consultants, few organisations make the leap to innovation rock stardom.

So what are the secrets of the world’s greatest innovators? And why do I believe that the learning and development function holds the keys to innovation performance inside most organisations?

Read more in the latest issue of Training Journal…

10 May

When Steve Jobs designed the Pixar campus he insisted on forcing people to ‘run into each other’ – helping them to have what he thought would be ‘the best meetings they would ever have.’

Every company should consider the ability of its environment to create moments of innovation serendipity…

VIDEO: What happened when Sony and Telefonica drank Innovation Juice…

4 May

1 minute overview of a 48-hour innovation leadership programme:

Do you have the No.1 skillset that every CEO is looking for?

23 Apr

The ability to spark, lead and embed innovation is the No.1 skill-set that CEOs want from senior managers, according to IBM’s 2010 Global CEO survey.

On 27th June 2012, DPA is hosting a unique leadership development experience designed to equip senior managers with the mindset, skills and tools needed to lead a culture of sustainable innovation.

Drawing on our experience of running similar programmes for companies including Sony, eBay and Telefonica, we’ve created a powerful blend of masterclasses and hands-on experience inside some of the world’s hottest start-up companies.  What’s more, delegates walk away with an innovation leadership toolkit worth £10,000.

If you’re looking for a gear-shifting career experience with some powerful organisational outcomes, read on…

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