in·no·va·tion – The introduction of something new; a new idea, method or device – [Source – Websters].
This term has driven many to spend hours, days and years focused on drawing out something new. Some say that necessity drives innovation. The years around the World War perhaps saw some of the most intriguing advances in many different fields. But that is not to detract from advances that have cumulated over history before and after that time.
Organizations strive for competitive edge. The goal – gain or retain their dominance in their industry. To do this, defining a direction and a roadmap is absolutely critical. Nations and organizations have done this via chartering groups to focus on it.
As early as 1940, President Roosevelt created the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to bring the best scientific minds to bear on solving critical problems that would give the US and its allies an advantage in an anticipated war. The point being that it is important part to look ahead.
However, the last thing an innovation initiative needs is a strategy. Innovation thrives on outcomes. It needs to be nimble and open to changes in context. Just imagine a corporate management style and structure placed on top of a lab! It would bring the lab to a grinding halt. The one and only thing that promotes success in the context of an Innovation lab is the delivery of value.
Of the top 25 industrial corporations in the United States in 1900, only two remained on that list at the start of the 1960s – and of the top 25 companies on the Fortune 500 in 1961, fewer than six remained in 2012. The key differentiator that allowed them to weather the change over time was their ability to change with the times and continue to deliver timely value.
So… what drives the delivery of timely value?
Ideas are the one absolutely necessary ingredient for an innovation culture. Without an idea, nothing else will happen. Therefore, incentivizing and developing a healthy funnel of ideas is very much needed.
Good questions present great answers. Asking the right questions is a must. What problem does the idea solve? Or what opportunities does the idea create? Who will want it? Will someone pay for it? How transient or permanent is the need that the idea solves? This leads to filtering ideas down to a short list.
Rapid proofing and idea prototyping are important next steps. ‘Fast fail’ is a term we hear frequently. Stated another way, we are looking to quickly determine if an idea holds value or not – and without burning an extraordinary amount of money or time.
Once this is done, industrializing ideas into sustainable products and services come next.
The environment today forces enterprises to remain focused on the short-term. However, without long-term thinking, short-term success is not possible. The rules have changed over time. Don Braben, a physicist and honorary professor at UCL, says that scientists like Einstein and Planck who made the major discoveries in the 20th century perhaps wouldn’t have got any funding under today’s rules!
Enterprises typically charter research groups to sustain focus. Their success is characterized purely by outcomes. Nothing else matters.
The Royal Society published a report not too long ago, on collaboration and innovation in the realm of global science. Amongst other things, the report emphasizes the power of collaboration in expediting innovation and indicated the growing role of emerging economies in this realm.
So how should an enterprise build out an innovation agenda?
What is on the agenda is less important as compared to the principles on which an agenda is based – and some of these principles are timeless and have been time-tested. Unless an agenda is built on a foundation of incubation, it will most likely (and rapidly) turn into a ‘catch-up’ exercise. If it’s already on the radar, it is too late – trends must be caught when they appear on the horizon.
A couple of important phrases that relate to innovation that in my opinion are very relevant. One of them is ‘search and reapply’ and the other is ‘tuning mental filters frequently’ – both used frequently by a colleague I respect much.
The other aspect of an innovation agenda is how it addresses the 3Ps – Product, Process and People. In all of these dimensions, the approach adopted towards innovation outcomes must be different from the approach taken to handle routine sustenance of asset portfolios. Too many innovation initiatives fail due to the failure to recognize this separation.
Ideation, proofing and prototyping are key steps in the innovation cycle. Picking a direction, choosing what to focus on is the hardest part. The common fallacy is believing that innovation is the domain of a few. The other one being that innovation must always be groundbreaking or game-changing. Indeed, such innovation is welcome but it does come in other forms as well. Innovation can be incremental – or – it can disrupt. It can solve problems – or – it can create new products and markets.
Innovation is many times mis-associated with exploratory invention. It is not necessarily so. In fact, innovation can be – and ideally should be – multi-faceted and well rounded. Innovation must occur in small increments, in short iterations, be timely and demonstrate value. It should not follow a ‘flavor of the day’ pattern. It should not be a ‘snapshot in time’ activity. It must be pursued through the peaks and valleys of business cycles.
It is important to note that it takes time to percolate an innovation culture through the fabric of an organization and patience is a must.
So…. Let’s look outward, tune our filters frequently and reapply knowledge.