“Tell me what I should be thinking about.”
The man asking the question, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, was dead sincere. We were at a social event. We were chatting about the weather when he’d asked me what I did, and when I told him I was an innovation consultant, his eyebrows raised. Then he popped the question.
This question, mercy, an open door to summarize my philosophy, is not one I get asked every day, especially by someone as empowered as a CEO. Clearly a savvy gentleman, I wondered for a moment if he was testing me or putting me on, but his eyes said he really wanted to know.
I said “do you have an hour?”
He laughed and asked for the short answer. I replied “you need to be thinking about project cycles and measures.” I added my punchline, “because if you’re not doing projects you’re not doing innovation.”
“What! Not Design Thinking?” Now I knew he was having a bit of fun. After a bit of gab about projects, Design Thinking, and other industry buzzwords, I promised to get back to him with a more thoughtful answer — and then I changed the topic!
My “projects” reply is a cocktail party answer. While true, given his organizations sophistication and context, it is too simple. Here’s a more thoughtful response.
Nine essential questions CEO’s should be asking about innovation.
For the rationale just click on the question. If there is some aspect of this I can assist with, please get in touch, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Are people empowered to innovate? Believe it or not, many people don’t think it’s their job to innovate. Tell them it is! They think, “that’s for R&D to do,” or, “that’s the innovation group.” Intense focus on operations has people viewing innovation as extra work. Even in groups and teams that are nominally about innovation, a leader has to make sure the team is not faced with continuous stumbling blocks. If efforts are stalled you need to intervene and remove obstacles. Small “i” innovation can be generated at any level, so communicate to all that you seek ideas to improve. If a good idea pops up, by all means resource it and get it into action. Bottom line: A specific mandate from the top is needed to motivate and sustain innovation.
- Is your culture supporting innovation? It’s a cliché, but you have to get the culture right. There are several ways to thoroughly assess if you have an innovative culture, but let’s keep it simple here. Look at results. If you’re not getting results, do more assessment, dig deeper. Do you empower your team (see point #1 above)? Is it a stimulating place to work? Are ideas for new things encouraged and worked, or, are they barely tolerated? Is it a “pitch” culture where ideas for projects get a hearing and a chance to be put into play? Is failure truly viewed as a learning experience or as a career killer? Are you taking enough risk? Does everyone have to agree? Is there a process in place? The only way to shift culture is through projects. If you monitor projects you’ll know what’s going on in the culture. If you’re not doing projects, start. Then support them — whether they all work out or not.
- Are you doing continuous projects? If not, you’re not being deliberate enough. Innovation is ultimately about projects. The more projects you do the more likely you’ll hit on something that works. If projects are sporadic or based on reactions to emergencies, then you need to start scheduling projects like a train (not Amtrak!). How you do projects is a separate but also important question, but look and see if there is a continuous spinning of front-end-of-innovation project cycles. If there is not, now is the time to get that cranked up, and get that innovation train on a schedule. I have an adaptable model for this, ask me!
- Are your people trained to do innovation? This has to do with the “how.” Innovation requires a different mindset and approach than normal operations. There are great frameworks and tools out there for innovation projects, like Design Thinking, Agile, Lean, and blended processes. Do your people know them? If they don’t training is a way to significantly up your game. If they are trained, make sure people aren’t letting those frameworks bog them down; there is a danger in over reliance on frameworks; rigid thinking of any kind and innovation are incompatible. None the less, training can accelerate your innovation efforts.
- Do you have the skills, the specific people, to innovate? You can get everything else right but if you don’t have a few people who are pretty darn bright, talented, and knowledgeable — you will fail. Make sure you have a clean up hitter on the team, think Jonny Ives at Apple. His design alone is a huge element of their success. One star can make all the difference. Which is not to say even an average person can’t make meaningful contributions, they can, but big breakthroughs usually come from highly skilled people. The stars can’t do it alone either, they need a supporting team to be successful. If you’re wondering if you have a star, you probably don’t.
- Are you allowing research to be the tail that wags the dog? Research into customer and market needs is essential, no doubt. But research and insight departments typically don’t invent, they report. The information they gather is a necessary jumping off point for invention and ideation. The question is, does someone take insights and get a process of active innovative thinking underway? Or do they hand off their report and forget about it? Research should be feeding that continuous set of projects mentioned above in #3. Another question to ask – is that insights team looking at trends outside your industry? Stealing ideas from other industries is a fast path to innovation.
- Low hanging fruit…are you seeking combinations across silo’s? There is innovation right under your nose, just waiting for someone to combine things. A technology you own, combined with another technology, or a process, or a new business model is an overlooked fast path to innovation. The elusive low hanging fruit can be accessed through creative combinations. Big organizations in particular have valuable IP that can be combined in new and creative ways. What stops this from happening are walled-off silo’s and specialization. Have a deliberate and thorough look at what might be combined at least once a year. Or, actively put this kind of thinking into your existing innovation process and projects. Have a look at the MoshPit concept.
- Are you looking at all the various types of innovation you might do? Product and service innovation is great, and, there are lots of places to innovate all through your value chain. Reference Doblin’s Ten Types chart and get a sense if your innovation projects are over-balanced in a particular set of types. When selecting the next project or two, consider focusing on a neglected area.
- Are you actively engaged in examining digital technology for innovation opportunities? Digital technologies are game changers, and it’s not a future thing — it’s here now. AI, social media, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and other technologies are impacting things up and down the value chain. What you are doing (or not doing) in this area is an indicator if you’re on top of innovation. Digital innovation projects are particularly challenging because they involve so many aspects of your business. The opportunity is immense. Keep in mind this is not just the domain of your data processing department any longer. Look at creating cross-functional teams for these kinds of projects. If there are no projects for digital technology integration, get them started. Honestly, this should be the first question. If there’s one aspect of innovation that, if ignored, will get you fired, this is it.
Please get in touch if you want to chat about any of these aspects of your innovation program.