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Innovation shouldn't be an orphan, adopt it

Mon, 01/12/2015 - 10:02 -- KevinMcFarthing

Innovation is far too often an organizational orphan.  How can you make sure it is not just fostered, but becomes adopted and part of the family?

I’ve written before on how the urgent can often overcome the important when it comes to innovation.  Whenever an important operational issue occurs, for example supply problems, major competitive threats, customer retention challenges; the natural response of the organization is to fight the fires with all the extinguishing power it can muster.

There’s nothing wrong with this in principle.  The long term doesn’t exist without short term survival.  The problem comes when innovation is starved of resource and attention because of an over-reaction to the firefighting.  Put that together with the structural challenges faced by innovation in companies organized along traditional functional lines, and the demand for a stronger approach to innovation should be overwhelming.  That’s why innovation should be an equal family member, not a Cinderella.

There are some important steps to take in order to make innovation part of the organizational family.

1.  Ensure somebody at C-suite level has explicit responsibility for innovation.

This doesn’t mean that they have direct control of all the resources necessary to deliver innovation.  In most large companies, only the CEO ultimately has that.  But somebody has to be able to “shake the tree” with positional authority.  They need to be the right character as well, so they can use personal authority to ensure innovation is delivered.  Just like a real life parent, they need to give innovation roots and wings.

There doesn’t seem to be a single approach to the discipline that should “own” innovation.  My personal view is that it should be a business-focused one, like Marketing.  Some companies view R&D as the innovation driver, in which case there is more likely to be technology push rather than customer pull and, in any case, it shouldn’t be isolated

2.  Build an explicit innovation strategy.

Imagine that you want to take a journey, but you don’t specify the destination or the route?  You’ll end up travelling aimlessly and unlikely to make progress.  It’s the same if you “need innovation”, but don’t establish a vision and a strategy.  The CEO and C-suite innovation leader should drive the development; communicate it to relevant communities, both internal and external; and stop activities that don’t align to the strategy.

3.  Set appropriate targets.

Once the strategy is in place, both short and long-term targets need to be set.  The executive team should hold themselves and their managers to account for the delivery.  It’s also important wherever possible to evaluate performance in different disciplines against the same targets e.g. Marketing, R&D and Market Research.  This has the wonderful effect of driving team behaviour as well as aligning resources and reducing inefficiency.

4.  Introduce an innovation cycle.

There are so many elements of business that follow a cycle with key events cemented into the calendar.  Take the budgeting cycle or annual performance reviews, for example.  Why not innovation?  Although there is a school of thought that says you can’t force genius to be creative, I don’t necessarily agree that you need to wait for the metaphorical white smoke to rise from the chimney.  Instead you can have an annual calendar that incorporates regular events such as idea generation.

Ideas are, of course, just the start.  Implementation is the result; innovation projects should therefore link to a launch calendar that is tied to the business cycle.

The innovation cycle should align to strategy reviews and target setting, so everybody knows what the priorities are for their short term activities, even if it is a milestone making progress to a longer term goal.  In my experience, those product categories with a strong seasonal influence, like cold and flu products, have very strong and successful innovation cycles.  Why not apply it to everything? 

The points above are essential if innovation is to take root and fly.  A simple innovation management system is the next stage, but it will struggle without the leadership and alignment needed to embed innovation ownership in the organizational routine.  Get it right, and innovation can become not just part of the corporate family but a proud member alongside its operational siblings.

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