Sustaining the case for innovation
A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of Innovation Directors from many different industries, where we shared our experience of making the case for innovation and sustaining the investment with or without having to re-make the case every year. From those discussions, I took away a very simple model – a virtuous circle indeed – to sustain the case for investment in innovation.
Step 1: get the basics right.
Using the concept of innovation horizons (where horizon 1 is development of the next generation of the same product, horizon 2 is development of a step-change product a few generations down the line, horizon 3 is creation of an entirely new concept), the first step is about making sure that you get horizon 1 right before you invest in horizon 2. With a good track record at horizon 1 developments, the leadership of the organization will naturally want to invest in horizon 2 and will accept – at least for a while – that it’s got to provide some breathing space for horizon 2 projects to come to fruition. Then, with horizon 2 successes, horizon 3 will gets its chance.
Step 2: focus.
Without exception, participants were working with a predefined set of innovation themes, as opposed to allowing complete 360deg freedom in the ideas being selected for funding. Provided that those themes have been signed-off at a high level in the organization, the innovation team then benefits from the leadership feeling re-assured that the innovation investment is focused on what matters for business.
Step 3: be transparent.
That statement is somewhat counter-intuitive. The instinct would be to keep the innovation projects as secret as possible to avoid ideas being stolen by the competition. But in practice, secret doesn’t work for at least two reasons:
- We live in a world where innovation is unlikely to happen by working 100% in-house. On the contrary, success is more likely to come from collaboration with a number of external partners. And within the organization, success is more likely to come from gradually creating buy-in and excitment, rather than surprising people at the end with a fully developed innovative product that will generate instant resistance to change.
- History of past innovations, such as the telephone, shows that when you have a brilliant idea it is generally not because you’re a genius, but because the idea is ‘in the air’. In a world where information travels at increasingly reckless speed, this is even more true today than in the age of Edison and Bell. So the recipe for success is to be the fastest, not the stealthiest.
Recognizing that secrecy is not going to get us very far, embracing transparency appears as an opportunity to create momentum for projects and to provide on-going re-assurance that the organization will see a return on its innovation investment.
Step 4: make innovation everyone’s business.
This much-used statement is sometimes wrongly interpreted as giving everybody their very own garage so that they can emerge from it one year later with a fully fledged Apple Computer. In fact, sustained innovation is more likely to be delivered through teamwork than by a lone genius. In a team, each individual has a different role. Think of sport or think of business, everyone has their own set of strengths and competences, which makes them good at something a not so good at something else. Making innovation everyone’s business is about making sure that everyone in the organization brings their specific talent at the right time in the innovation process. At its simplest, innovation being the product of creativity and execution, success will come from making innovation the business of those who are creative and those who bring disciplined execution. By harnessing everyone’s talent for the purpose of innovation, we increase chances of success.
This, in turn, takes us back to step 1. Having enjoyed success in our first iteration of the cycle, we can then move to the next level of challenge, be it the next theme or the next horizon, without having to re-make the case for innovation. And with the right focus, transparency and teamwork, we’ll successfully go through another iteration of the virtuous cycle of innovation.