The Problem is Actually Making Something

I had a chance to catch up with a friend last week who recently changed jobs. He is passionate about innovation, and his previous job title had been “Innovation Champion”, a position seemingly custom-designed for his skills and interests.

So why did he switch jobs?

That was one of the topics that we discussed. It turns out that the day-to-day reality of the job was a lot more frustrating than the job title suggested, and the problems that he faced are actually very common. There were two main obstacles that he ran into. The first is that his firm made him an “Innovation Champion”, and then the senior managers acted as though that was all they had to do to make innovation happen. There were no structures or processes in place to help him out. There were other Innovation Champions throughout the firm, but they were widely distributed, and there was no coherent, co-ordinated approach to innovation.

This problem is surprisingly common. There are two approaches to innovation that seem to work well in larger firms. One is to have dedicated innovation teams that are given the task of making sure that new ideas are executed. Sometimes they come up with the ideas as well, in other cases they manage ideas from the rest of the firm. The recent version of Xerox’s PARC Labs is a good example of this approach.

The other option that works is to embed innovation throughout the entire organisation – make it everybody’s business to come up new ideas, and to execute them. This is the approach that Proctor & Gamble and Zappos Shoes have taken, and with enough top-level support, this can be a very successful way to manage innovation.

My friend’s firm didn’t do either of these – they ended up with a solution that was neither fish nor fowl. It was stuck in the middle, and the Innovation Champions were left with all of the responsibility for making innovation happen, but no real resources to do so.

The second problem is that the corporate-level Innovation Champion saw innovation as primarily the act of generating new ideas. If you read this blog with any kind of regularity, you’ll know how strongly we emphasize the idea that innovation is a process, and that in addition to generating ideas, organisations need to be good at selecting and executing new ideas, and at getting them to diffuse. You must be good at all three steps to succeed at innovation over an extended period of time.

I sometimes think that I spend too much time making this point, and yet, the concept that innovation is only about ideas is distressingly widespread. Scott Berkun recently addressed this issue as well, in a Q&A session supporting the launch of the paperback version of his excellent book The Myths of Innovation:

Naomi Maloney: Q. Aren’t we really talking about IDEAS?
Sure. But that’s just more vocabulary. What is an idea? When you’re dead, is an idea you had in your mind more important than an idea manifested somehow in the world?
You can spend weeks debating which vocabulary is best for thinking about creativity – it is fun to a point. But then you realize you haven’t done any real work towards solving any real problem. I’m happy to yield to other people’s vocabulary if it gets everyone to actually make or design a prototype for something sooner. Most people have an idea for a book / movie / company / product / thing, but never manifest in the world in any way. The hard part is rarely the idea. Or what vocabulary they’re using. The problem is asses in chairs, or at whiteboards, or in code, or in a lab, actually making something.

This is consistent with my experience and observations as well – the hard part is not coming up with the ideas, the hard part is making them happen.

This is why I make an effort to get this message across – because if organisations don’t understand these two points, they will not be able to manage innovation effectively. If they fail to do this, then they are at risk of falling behind their competitors, and they are also more likely to lose their most creative and innovative people.
If they have a dominant position in a completely stable market, they can maybe afford these outcomes. In any other case, though, it’s bad to lose people like this – and eventually it will lead to bad outcomes.

(By the way, all of the Berkun Q&A post is worth reading – in particular check out the diagram showing the evolution of copyright protection.)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “The Problem is Actually Making Something

  1. I think that the problem with trying to embed innovation in the organisation, is that it has become a ‘nice to have’ when things are going well and there is ample time and resources to promote and support innovation.

    When the presuure is on, and peolle are being shed, and the focus shifts to operational efficiencies, there is a perception that innovating takes too long…let’s just do the stuff we know.

    The way to avoid this is to actually embed innovation in the overall Continuous Improvement strategy. Continuous Improvement has staying power in the context of my previous remark, and there fore if innovation sits within that framework, it has a better chance of staying alive without having to be re-resurrected and diluted every time it is pushed out of site due to other business priorities.

    Here’s a slideshow I put together a couple of years ago during my time at IAG. A few of the links may have fallen off, but the content is still there and relevant. It speaks to innovation as part of the overall CI cycle. It works.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Still I think the selection phase is the problem. The execution part of the innovation process is well documented and many organizations are not too bad at this. But why do so many fail then ? In my view because the selection phase is performing badly and giving the wrong input to the execution part. Most innovation ‘specialists’ focus on generating ideas and on project management (execution). They have no clear view on how to select ideas.

  3. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Eric 7 Kurt! Eric, I agree that innovation can easily become a “nice to have” and that this is a fundamental problem. Embedding it into a continuous improvement program can work. The only drawback to that is that when you do that, it can be harder to generate more radical innovations. But in the main, I agree that it is a good strategy.

    Kurt, I completely agree with your assessment of innovation specialists and their focus on generating ideas. That has been one of the key themes of our blog – trying to combat that way of thinking.

  4. Kurt, developing a Business Opportunity Review matrix that refelects the key business imperitives, and that immediately identifies an owner accountable for delivery, enables each opportunity to be rated consistenly and in line with those imperitives, can really move things forward.

    Key thing is to have the right people at the table, and that would be a cross section of senior decsion makers whose functional groups have a vested interest in each of the imperitives on the matrix.

    Running in the background is your innovation management & capture platform, being actively promoted and tweaked to keep people interested in identifying and submitting opportunities for improvement. Too many firms deploy a capture mechanism, then leave it to swell and stain like an old chipboard suggestion box.

    You need to keep people interested in the capture part, in the same way that keeps them interested in any other social media/community platform they interact with outside of the workplace.

    Good post Tim, thanks.

Comments are closed.