Every leader talks about the importance of innovation to their business. In public, every leader talks about how they and their teams are at the fore front of innovation. In private, the very same leaders confess that they are nowhere near the level of innovation that they would like to be at.
On one hand, they confess that they are struggling to get the innovation process work as effectively as any of their other functions. On the other hand, there are good ideas that languish within their corporate boundaries with no support. This seems to be a dichotomy that needs resolving.
Once upon a time:
I was once part of a small team that was tasked to come up with a grounds up innovation that could open up a completely new market for the business. One that we hadn’t tapped into yet but believed that will be the core of what will drive our business growth in the years to come.
We were a diverse team lead by an external business innovation coach. We worked the process, looked at all the different markets, identified where we could have the biggest impact based on our overall strength, build a prototype, a business model to bring this product to life and capture the market that the organisation thought was critical for its success.
After multiple steering committee meetings, long days and longer nights, we finally got an opportunity to present our prototype and the business model to one of the most senior leader in the organisation. He loved it. He said that we were onto something good and that we need to keep going. He asked us how can he and his team support.
All we asked was for continued funding so that we could continue to work on the project for a couple of quarters so that we can build the MVP and take it to market. Considering what his overall budget for innovation was, what we were asking was not even a rounding off error.
We waited for a few weeks and then a few more weeks. Finally, in a couple of months’ time, we were told that there would be no budgets and that we would still need to work in stealth mode (working on this on top of our regular day jobs). We still did that.
However, it was clear that the product is going nowhere, despite everyone in the organisation agreeing that it was a good idea. We took the prototype with the business case to a few potential customers and they were willing to buy the solution and invest in further development of the solution. Still, the product went nowhere.
If you have worked on an innovation project, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise for you. This happens all the time. The question is why? On one side, there are leaders who complain that their organisations are not innovating enough and on the other side, they let good ideas that do come up in their organisations slip up. The question also is what can we do about it.
I believe that there are some very fundamental issues that are common in most organisations that, when addressed can help us do better when it comes to bringing good ideas to life.
The biggest barrier for good ideas to stagnate and not see their potential realised is inertia or the fight against the status quo. Assuming that we have a good idea that has crossed the first chasm of being selected for further investment, we need inspired people who are willing to bring it to life. Once we have that, the second wave of inertia will hit.
This is the same thing that hit us in our project. This is the stage of finding resources (money, people, time) for the idea. The inertia here is so strong that most grounds up ideas are never able to make it past this stage. The ideas that do get past this stage are typically the ones that are being driven top-down.
What can we do about it:
If as leaders, we are serious about innovation in our organisations, we need to provide breathing space for good ideas to be birthed and breeding ground for them to grow into their full potential.
This means that the resource allocation process for innovation projects needs to be clearly defined, if not separate from the overall resource allocation process. If we don’t get this right, the short term resource needs will always outweigh the long term resource needs. This leads to good ideas always struggling to get funded and thereby not achieve their full potential.
Typical resource allocation process follows the need for a business case to be developed that can unequivocally show that the returns expected from the investment will far outweigh the investment itself.
The key here is that it is difficult to predict how successful a particular innovation or idea will be, thereby making it difficult to unequivocally show the returns, especially when compared to the other projects competing for the same funding that are focused on current needs.
Just like every hero needs a mentor (or a side-kick) who champions the cause of the hero when no one believes in him/her, every good idea needs a champion who can add weight to the idea. This needs to be someone at the leadership level.
As leaders who want to champion and build a robust innovation process within our organisation, we need to be the biggest cheer leaders of the teams which are doing good work and have shown the ability to solve interesting problems in interesting ways.
If we don’t give our attention to these projects, no one else will give attention to the team. Solving problems in interesting ways is a difficult task by itself, we don’t need to make it even more difficult for the team.
What can we do about it:
As leaders, we need to be engaged with the innovation process and progress being made. We also need to understand our own bias against creativity (more on this here) and learn to look at the potential of an idea when evaluating them.
As leaders, it is also important to build a culture where people feel comfortable sharing ideas that are not yet fully formed.
This has obvious advantages. Firstly, the people who came up with the idea are not emotionally invested in the idea, making them open to feedback. Secondly, it gives you the ability to influence (start/stop/continue) and guide the team if guidance is needed at an early stage rather than at a much later stage when too much time, effort and resources have already been spent.
I strongly believe that the first part of the innovation equation (finding and interesting problem to solve in an interesting way) is easy and straight forward and most organisations get them right. They fail in the other side of the equation when they are unable to create an environment where these interesting solutions can not only grow but attain their full potential.
If we as leaders are able to address the resource allocation problem and give our full executive attention, we can be sure to bring to fruition all the great ideas and solve the innovation conundrum.