“Describe the importance of innovation strategy to the success of an organization’s innovation efforts.”
Braden Kelley over at Blogging Innovation asked a number of people to contribute their perspectives on the question above. This is my response.
Popular culture associates innovation with one or both of these qualities:
- Out-of-the-blue “a-ha!” moments
- High individual creativity
When those characteristics guide your thinking, the notion that there can be an innovation “strategy” seems…quaint. Like saying Van Gogh needed a “painting strategy”.
And if you subscribe to those notions, there must be a fait accompli aspect to your view on innovation inside companies. It will happen, or it won’t. Throw your hands up, hope you’ve got the right creative people.
As Gary Hamel said recently, “There is this ‘creative apartheid’ ingrained in the world. Some people are really creative, some aren’t. That’s BS.” A good contradiction to that poorly formed idea is the observation that people have different kinds of intelligences. Too much focus on outputs for one kind of intelligence means you’re missing a lot of creativity.
So what is an innovation strategy inside organizations? There are four aspects to it:
- Establishing the culture and expectations that everyone has valuable ideas to contribute
- Providing direction for innovation efforts
- Setting up a common basis for everyone to share and collaborate on ideas
- Putting in place specific processes to turn good ideas into real initiatives
Culture and Expectations
When Google lets employees set aside 20% of their time for working on their own projects, what message does that convey? “We are a company built on and for innovation. We want you to contribute to that.”
While Google’s near monopoly in web search affords it the luxury of granting that much time, the point should not be lost that they are baking into their corporate culture the notion that everyone contributes to innovation.
It can be hard to break free of the purely “execution” culture. We get paid on our performance on assigned tasks over the course of a year. But it’s important that employees look up from their desks sometimes. For instance, I imagine the employees of defunct retailer Circuit City were executing well on their tasks right up to the end. But what did they hear from their customers day-in, day-out in the years prior to the retailer’s bankruptcy?
Creation of a rich culture that seeks and celebrates ideas is a powerful strategy for companies. Celebrates the ideas that turn into real initiatives, and those that don’t. Celebrate the efforts as much as the results. Make it “safe” from a career perspective to take some chances.
Without a conscious effort, it’s possible that employees will end up focusing only on executing assigned tasks.
Providing Innovation Direction
Think about some of your best creativity in your own career. I’ll bet a lot of it came when you were under the gun, focusing on solving a real problem.
This is something we hear from our customers. Focused campaigns are just as important as open innovation approaches. They’re great for eliciting ideas on specific issues.
This makes sense. By one estimate, people have 15,000 thoughts per day. That’s a lot of thinking, and you can be sure there are both fully formed ideas and idea fragments in there each day. With all those thoughts occurring every day, it is impossible to capture them all. Not enough time to enter them, and the ideas likely will lack context.
But what happens when a company puts out a call for ideas to solve a specific issue? There is an organizing structure to that amoebic soup of thoughts. People apply the fragments of ideas, pulling them together to provide possible solutions.
One best practice we heard from the recent Spigit Customer Summit is to tie ideation events to the big corporate objectives of a company. This provides a basis for running recurring campaigns around different themes. And drawing out those ideas we all have in our 15,000 thoughts a day.
This is the integration of corporate strategy to innovation strategy.
Common Basis for Sharing and Collaboration
Quick – tell me the top three ideas of your colleagues right now! It’s hard to know, isn’t it? Where do you go to look that up?
The usual options for sharing ideas inside companies are ad hoc and siloed:
- Presentations on a hard drive
- Customer service databases
It’s hard to maintain a good innovation pace when these are your tools. Visibility into innovation efforts is nonexistent. This is particularly problematic in large enterprises.
Ideas exposed to a larger cross-section of the organization benefit from a diversity of perspectives. University of Chicago professor Ronald Burt conducted a study of a Supply Chain Group for a major American electronics company. His goal was to understand how employees generate the best ideas. One finding was this:
Thus, value accumulates as an idea moves through the social structure, each transmission from one group to another having the potential to add value. In this light, there is an incentive to define work situations such that people are forced to engage diverse ideas.
To gain the benefits of multiple perspectives, companies need a common place where all employees can post ideas, rate them and provide feedback.
Selecting, implementing, publicizing and using a cross-enterprise innovation platform falls right within the work of innovation strategy.
Specific Innovation Processes
Generally, companies that use Spigit (disclosure: I work for Spigit) have well-defined innovation processes when we talk with them. They understand their organizations, and what it will take for an idea to move forward. These processes often are provided to us in the form of Visio-like process flows.
Contrast this with the usual way ideas advance. They need to get traction at the departmental level. This is a powerful location for the development of a good idea. But then the trajectory of an idea becomes less clear. Ownership issues, attention limitations, and the need to coordinate multiple constituencies makes it hard to advance an idea.
In contrast, an innovation strategy includes taking on this issue, and establishing an open, consistent process for determining how ideas move forward. This includes identifying which managers have approval responsibility for ideas.
Of the four elements described here, this may be the biggest effort that goes into an innovation strategy. Innovations can touch a lot of employees and departments, and working through them can be tough. Paving a path ahead of time is incredibly valuable and necessary.
An Innovation Strategy Lets Companies Make Their Own Luck
Companies, all of them, have in their possession a deep reservoir of innovation talent. It’s really incumbent on the companies to establish conditions to tap that talent. And make employees feel like innovation is anticipated and welcome.
is is the importance of a corporate innovation strategy.
(Cross-posted @ the Spigit Blog)