Are You Ready for an Innovation Initiative? (Part 1)

Design Thinking Word Cloud

A growing number of our clients are asking for us to deliver programs around the topic of leading and cultivating innovation.   This topic covers a broad waterfront and I think people think many different things when they hear the word.

So what is innovation, and what does it take for your organization to launch a successful innovation initiative?

What is Innovation?

Many think about innovation in the context of their R&D department whose job it is to develop “innovative” new products and/or services.   This is clearly one key area where we want innovation to work (think about products like the iPad, iPhone, Kindle, or even Facebook that have dramatically altered the marketplace.   Finding a new idea that can sweep the industry by storm can bring with it massive financial rewards.  Playing catch up usually is not a good place to be.

For the field of new product/service development there is a body of knowledge, often called “design thinking,” that speaks well to an approach that can yield new design ideas.  The term is generally attributed to IDEO’s David Kelly, (see You CAN Teach Innovation, and Play . . . Seriously? ).  In general, I see Design Thinking as a process methodology that guides people to see the world better through the eyes of users, gaining deeper insights that can yield more innovative solutions. It also has a decided Systems Thinking orientation, challenging designers to see holistically – generally more broadly than they otherwise would have before zeroing in on the best design solution.

But if you think about innovation, it can also be considerably broader than just developing better design solutions.   So here is another definition to consider:

Innovation: the art of implementing a new idea or approach . . . to anything.

By this definition the idea of innovation has implications for every part of your organization, from top-to-bottom and side-to-side.  Notice also the word “implementing” in the definition.  It reminds us that great ideas alone are not sufficient.  It is the act of implementing it that morphs it into an innovation.

With such a broad definition, innovation can apply to all our jobs, changing processes, improving operations, raising quality, improving customer service, or saving money.   The general idea is that all organizations, when operating in accordance with their current status quo, produce the outputs they get today.  If we want ANYTHING to change, we must somehow change our approach.

This idea, of course, is not new, but John Kotter and others have shown compelling evidence that the vast majority (ranging from 70-90%) of organizations fail to achieve intended goals when launching new change initiatives.  So what does it take to make it work?

Here are three things I feel are vital.

1. An agreed process methodology

The truth is that there is an art to the act of innovation, and while we are not all born with the skill, most of us can learn it.  If you recall my recent post called The Marshmallow Challenge, it illustrated that the process approach you choose can in fact greatly influence the outcomes. There are some skills involved as well that promote “divergent thinking” – a key aspect of effective brainstorming. (We are generally good at this as children, but adults typically struggle.)  There are tools like “affinity diagrams” to help take a large list of ideas and establish a process of organizing them in ways that help us converge on a manageable number of solutions.

There are, of course a myriad of methods already out there.   Consider for example:

  • PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) introduced by lean quality theorists
  • DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) developed by practitioners of Six Sigma
  • OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) a decision-making process developed by the Air Force for its combat pilots
  • FIRE (Focus-Ideation-Ranking-Execution) developed at HP by Phil McKinney

There are many similarities among these and there are people who strongly advocate in favor of one vs. the other.  From where I sit, I suppose it doesn’t matter which one you choose, so long as your team understands and agrees to follow the chosen approach.  An innovation process can be organic and even chaotic at times, so it helps to use a methodology to provide some degree of order and keeps channeling them towards an implementable outcome.

2. A supporting infrastructure

For reasons better left to industrial psychologists, not all organizations are able to follow these processes automatically.  One of my P&G colleagues tells me that after years of trying to teach innovation techniques to its employees, they concluded that most intact teams fail to use them effectively.  So Procter created a unique innovation space they call “The Gym”: a workout space for your mind where people can get away from the constraints of their home environment and work with highly trained facilitators as they grapple with “wicked problems”. They are not alone in reaching this solution.  In addition, a growing number of companies have created “chief innovation officer” positions to help infuse innovation concepts throughout their organizations.  Here are some (which you can Google on your own):

  • P&G’s “GYM”  (Innovation Center at Beckett Ridge)
  • Mayo Clinic’s “Center for Innovation”
  • Boston Public Schools “Office of Innovation”
  • The Wrigley “Global Innovation Center”

So it seems we often need help to nurture the innovation process.

3. A supportive environmental culture

This kind of leads us to the third (and I think most important) element of building your supportive innovation system – creating an environment that encourages the right level of innovation.  Wittingly or not, we can on one hand talk a good game about wanting innovative solutions, while setting in place a string of impediments that make it difficult if not impossible to find those solutions.

Yes, innovation often requires trying something new, and this has risk associated with it.  You can bias your organization to be risk-taking or risk-averse by the incentive systems you create, the way you tolerate failures, and the ways you select innovation project members.  The shorter your time horizon and the more focus you put on short-term financial results – the less risk taking you will likely invite.

You can also promote internal politics by how you manage your company promotion systems. If you hire many thoroughbreds and have them compete against each other for a diminishing number of positions at the upper echelon of the organizational pyramid, you can create all kinds of unhealthy internal dynamics where people fight each other even harder than they do your competition.  Not a good thing.

Finally, You can hire people who are all in the same mold, or who are diverse in thinking and life experiences.   It is amazing to me how many industries act like it is a mistake to hire people who come from outside the industry.  While they may lack some initial insight about the business, they can make up for it with their fresh perspectives and new insights.  Just ask Ford’s Alan R. Mulally (the industry outsider that is getting high marks for his slow transformation of that struggling auto maker.)

There is something else I have noted about people who drive remarkable change.  They possess a special kind of attitude.  They question everything and assume very little.  Their operating assumption is that “we are not good enough” instead of “everything’s fine”. They take risks, and break rules.  They have intense passion and energy.  They will rock the boat.  In some organizations, these traits are, frankly, just not appreciated.   But that’s precisely the kind of people you need . . . with egos that don’t take new ideas personally, and don’t feel obliged to defend what they have already done.

So, these are the key ingredients for success.   How does your organization stack up?

In my next post, I will describe a live case example of innovative change in health care system which impressed me at a recent conference we hosted at Xavier about the new shape of heath care in America.

Other related articles:

What is Design Thinking, Really?, by emergent by design.

The Big Ten Innovation Killers and How to Keep Your Innovation System Alive and Well, by Joyce Wycoff


1 Comment

Filed under Innovation, Systems Thinking

One response to “Are You Ready for an Innovation Initiative? (Part 1)

  1. Rashmi Assudani


    I am an Associate Professor at WCB. You may want to check the Tedx event at Xavier on April 26. The title of the event is ‘Touching hearts and minds through service, innovation and leadership’. Of the 9 speakers, there are some speaking on the topic of innovation.


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