Innovation is a strategic intent

HBR recently posted an article whose title states that innovation requires a strategy. As a tool I would agree. A strategy signals that it is being thought of in a considerate fashion. However, I would like to suggest that innovation requires  strategic intent. This means that no matter how big or small a business, its fundamental nature believes and strives for innovation and is at the core of the business.

An innovation strategy is compatible with my view of innovation as a strategic intent. As a tool a strategy is a good management discipline but it does not raise or solve any problems about how strategically important innovation is. And the only way to ensure that innovation is mission critical is that it comes from the top consistently, is embedded in the culture and is not an adjunct or after thought.

So often innovation is seen as a saviour to poor business performance and money is thrown at it for a magic-like fix. Unfortunately, innovation that occurs as an after thought or is used in desperate measures is often costly and rarely delivers what is expected. Partly, this is because innovation requires a level of risk and risk is not something most companies have an appetite for when times are tough. The best way to approach innovation as mentioned before is consistently and preferably from the start of the business so that it becomes part of the culture (the way we do things here).

Delivering innovation is pretty simple. It can be measured in terms of new products, new markets, new models, new technologies, new application of technologies, new ways of working – anything new. Innovation is about either taking something existing and adding to it or making something completely new. In either case, whatever it is didn’t exist before and that delta is what you measure.

Easier said than done but it can be done.

As a word of caution, Professor Robertson from Wharton University will tell you that innovation requires a management system. It isn’t wise to constantly incur new ideas without properly planning for their execution and implementation. A collection of new things can be just as damaging as no innovation at all and this is because new things are time consuming and potentially distracting. His book on Lego’s innovation history says more about how innovation can lead to losses without proper management.

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OPENNESS IS THE START OF COLLABORATION

There is a known school of thought established by IDEO that product and service development is more than just technology or design. It stems from a combination of attributes that include human factors (marketing considerations, customer experience, usage etc).

I am a product developer with a marketing strategist hat. This means I start my thinking with questions: what is the value of the product or service to the customer? How does it make their life better?

The challenge with corporate approaches to product and service development is compartmentalisation and lack of collaboration. A product cannot be developed without the input of a variety of skills which sit across business silos. More collaboration fostered by multi-disciplined teams is a good thing.

In digital domains this is a constant reality. The development of a digital product includes a combination of skills to make magic happen. There is no way round it.

Why are we still struggling?

I am not telling you anything new. However, what strikes me is how we continue to struggle putting this type of work into practice. Large organisations grapple with rigid fiefdoms and ways of working that defy collaboration principles. It is smaller, more nimble start-ups that are showing the big guys how to do it. 

I have seen it in all the businesses I have worked. There is much talk but cultures restrict any form of collaboration. How many business leaders are tasked with metrics on working together in addition to achieving end results? In some organisations, junior staff members are not bonused on overall business performance as though they have not contributed to the end result, which is disingenuous. Often HR staff lack understanding in what an employee actually does. Mostly, business directors want to own and control rather than share and build together.  

Where does a big company start? Try openness.

I was lucky enough to work at the Financial Times under the CEO Stephen Hill who fostered a culture of openness and shared goals. He made it clear to the entire organisation what the five year plan was and therefore everyone in the organisation, from admin through to senior management, was aware and focused. He printed the mission statement and targets in large format and posted them where people congregated. He addressed the entire organisation and made each person accountable for working toward those goals. There was no secrecy. Everyone was in it together.

If you don’t know it, ask your company to share their five year plan. You’ll be amazed or alarmed as to how many won’t share and feel it is on a need to know basis (or worse don’t even have one). From that information, you can work out what your contribution should be and identify ways of working together to get there. Sometimes change has to start from the bottom with one simple question.  

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