Category Archives: Innovation

5 Catalysts to Innovation

THE WAY THINGS COULD BE?

Our two previous posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so it seemed only logical to share some of our observations as to how organizations have overcome these barriers by leveraging various catalysts or “enablers” to innovative thought and behavior.

But be advised, these methods require strong and empowering leadership to lay out the market constraints, make clear the threats from the changing environment and the opportunities that may arise, and provide the amnesty to take a risk to put ideas and observations on the table.

Necessity – “the mother of invention”
When Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. And it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks, but they had a generous budget so it was okay. Yet to make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision to add the constraints: the mouse must be buildable for under $15 and operate reliably for at least two years.

For successful innovation, you need people to seek out the real-world constraints that must be respected in order to actualize the idea. Until the idea can work within the constraints — like Apple’s mouse — it is still in the germination stage, not yet a true innovation.

“Freedom is just another word for nothing to lose”
It’s often easier to try something new or innovative, and to risk failure, when the status quo looks pretty untenable. As the saying goes, never waste a crisis, and if you don’t think you have one, look further around you. Change is inevitable; a threat is always on its way.

For example, one company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did!

Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. Or an established organization might need to make innovative changes due to operational disruption. For example, if the system or tool or supplier or technology they are using is going away or changing, it is a good time to rethink the work entirely.

It’s important to recognize that leaders must provide amnesty to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas when making these types of innovative changes.

It’s easier to think outside the box when you are from outside the box
Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”

Know the market; know your customers — internal as well as external
Market instincts are more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating article in The New Yorker, Creation Myth — Xerox PARC, Apple, and Creation of the Mouse, he suggests that Xerox could never have capitalized on the mouse because they did not have the instincts for the consumer market. They had the technological talent, but that was simply not enough; personal computing is a consumer market and Xerox’s reservoir of market instincts was for commercial enterprises. Steve Jobs knew the consumer market. Similarly, Cisco was forced to close down its Flip video and HP pulled out of the tablet market — both retreated from consumer markets back to their core markets.

Process innovation also requires getting close to the customers. To be able to innovate work processes, you must go to the work. ‘Go to the Gemba (or work place),’ is the Toyota mantra. Asking customers what they need or want is simply not going to be enough. They cannot innovate for you — you must go and watch them use your product to really understand the market. You must go and watch the work flow in order to understand the processes and the problems that workers grapple with. You must see for yourself in order to envision a better product or process.

Imagine Perfection
Last but not least, to foster process innovation summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. We all have this: inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it. Because we cannot immediately think of any possible alternatives, we look the other way and thus we cannot innovate.

Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. We have seen remarkable feats of innovation inspired by this simple act — recognizing waste for what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision. Imagine perfection or the way things could or should be if everything was right.

“Imagineer!”

Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post identified the “innovation dilemma” faced by many organizations. Continuing on that theme, our experience and research into barriers to innovation surfaced three paradoxical observations:

Lack of Time or Too Much Time?
Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier. People are too busy to think about innovation. “If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I
better be too.”

This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.

But dedicating resources to innovation does not seem to work that well, either. It may foster a creative environment, but this does not necessarily translate into more workable innovations. One organization created an innovative think tank with 12-14 people led by a senior executive. After two years they were disbanded because while they came up with some innovative ideas, none of them were financially viable.

Similarly, Xerox created an inventor’s paradise, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), assembled incredible talent, big budgets, and freedom from oversight by senior management back East. They envisioned a great number of wonderful things, but that did not enable them to bring these visions or prototypes to market. Many of their greatest ideas were brought to fruition by other companies.

Too Much at Stake
Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk.

When the large financial information firm, Bloomberg, was a small start-up with a few big ideas, the founders carried their prototype via taxi over to Merrill Lynch, their first customer. The computer had only partial functionality and nowhere near the required reliability — yet. But the risks of not bringing it out, of waiting until everything was in order, exceeded the risks of showing the product, even with some flaws remaining and some features not quite built. The meeting went very well, and the rest is history.

But when a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product, expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.\

Similarly, managers at middle or high levels in an organization often have completely different risk profiles than they had in their twenties when they were just trying to make a name for themselves. For middle management, the costs of introducing a bad idea can far outweigh the costs of not introducing a good idea, and they become risk-averse.

Consider the impact of risk-aversion when the number of great ideas is a function of the total number of ideas. When it comes to innovation, the win/loss ratio is meaningless. All that matters is how many wins you have. And the number of wins varies with the number of tries. As Thomas Edison once said about his long journey toward a working light bulb, “I have not failed; I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

How many incomplete or unworkable ideas must one consider to find a real winner? Quite a few. Yet at what ratio of rejected ideas to accepted ones do people decide to keep their heads down and continue doing things the way they have always been done? Little wonder innovation is so hard to come by.

“Too Much of a Good Thing”
We cannot innovate with too few ideas, but can’t get anywhere with too many. Innovation requires a well disciplined process as well as a fast flowing stream of ideas. An organization needs to have an effective way to
pivot from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing. Ideas can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.

In our next post we will share some ideas for overcoming these and other barriers to innovation.

Innovate Much?

Almost everyone we ask says they want to be innovative; and it is a well accepted concept that the best returns come to those who are first to market with a new product, process or solution.

It is a straightforward conclusion that a competitive advantage will be yours if you can provide better quality at lower costs, achieve breakthrough improvements, or if you create a management system or culture that constantly is clicking on all cylinders.

But how often do these things actually happen?

The Innovation Dilemma
Innovation is challenging for all of our organizations: large and small. Each new “frontier” is fraught with peril and risk… with each new idea inspiring both hope and worry. In fact, in our experience and research, we find that there is an “innovation dilemma” that makes innovation truly enigmatic:

  • Large organizations have more wherewithal to invest in systematic innovation, but smaller organizations seem more capable of capitalizing on innovative ideas.
  • Most innovations come not from visionaries at the top but from people closest to the work. Yet paradoxically, strong leadership and vision at the top of the organization are required to create an environment that fosters innovation and risk taking. Without strong leadership, organizations become bureaucratic and risk-averse.
  • Outsiders often have the most innovative ideas, but insiders’ know-how and buy-in are required to get them implemented.

So, with these challenges in mind, our next couple of posts will take a closer look at some of the barriers to innovation as well as ways to overcome them.

Innovation & Cross-Functional Collaboration

Continuing with the theme of innovation, the breakthrough process innovations that achieve order-of-magnitude improvements almost always require cross-organizational collaboration.

So it’s not surprising that this level of innovation is difficult to achieve because, while cross-organizational improvement efforts present substantial opportunities, they also pose some formidable obstacles.

Three of the most common barriers to cross-functional success, along with some ideas on how to overcome them, are:

Too many people… One of the basic facts of accomplishing cross-organizational work is that we must involve more people.  This size factor alone can make the project more difficult to execute. The larger the group, the more effort is required to ensure that good working relationships develop among the team members.  Scheduling meetings becomes more difficult, and individuals may take less responsibility because with a large group it is easier to assume someone else will pick up the slack.

To better-manage larger project teams, leaders must pay close attention to organizational tools and methods, such as forming a proper charter, clearly-defining roles, maintaining consistent communication with top management, scheduling meetings well-in advance and on a regular time-table, distributing meeting agendas in advance to promote awareness and preparedness, and adhering to effective meeting management protocols.

Cumbersome logistics… Cross-organizational improvement projects frequently involve multiple locations, different time zones, and different cultures. Not only can these factors pose scheduling challenges, but also bring about issues with respect to team-building and communication.

To overcome or minimize these challenges, leaders can schedule the initial meeting in person and invest in intensive team-building up front.   For remote meetings, they can add interactive visual communication and employ a more interactive facilitation style; scheduling can “rotate” to accommodate different time zones as well.

Conflicting priorities… The biggest impediment to accomplishing cross-organizational improvements is the power of competing priorities, which can make it hard to form an overall consensus or gain buy-in to the overall mission and vision.  The danger of shifting priorities is many times larger with cross-organizational projects as well, making it more likely that new urgent demands will arise before the project is complete, and resources become overloaded and start missing meetings and skipping action items.

To address these challenges, leaders can begin by conducting a thorough analysis that highlights the enterprise-wide benefits that are at stake. Engaging top level sponsors is also a must. While sponsor engagement is essential to the success of most change efforts, it is more critical for a cross-organizational improvement project. It is also important for all parties to respect the inevitable differences in priorities and operation models, and to avoid the appearance of being judgmental or of telling others “how they should be doing their jobs.”

Finally, nothing succeeds more than success! Achieving some quick wins, and sharing the details, is a great way to start.  Successfully addressing chronic problems is especially great for keeping people engaged and ready to do more. Facilitators are also sales people for the facts, data, methods, and for getting buy-in for the team’s recommendations.  But be sure to leverage every success to encourage more participation.

 

5 Innovation Catalysts

Recent posts have focused on common barriers to innovation, so today we’ll share five catalysts or tools that can help an organization become more innovative.

  1. Capitalize on a need… It has often been said that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” One company observed that when their very survival was at risk, they began to implement a program of Continuous Improvement that called on everyone to contribute innovative implementable ideas. Because they had to develop new and better ways of operating, they did! Similarly, a start-up company with few resources must innovate or quickly wither away. However, it must be less scary to try something new and risk failure than it is to stay with the status quo, and people at all levels must have a sense of “amnesty” to reduce the risk of sharing new ideas.
  2. Involve outsiders… “It is easiest to think outside the box, when you are from outside the box.” Outsiders often come up with the best innovations, because they have no ties to the status quo. But outsiders often have a difficult time effecting real change because they are outsiders. A senior manager of a once innovative company wryly observed, “We say we like to bring in outsiders with fresh ideas, but when they share them we explain that’s not the way we do it here.”
  3. Know the marketplace…  Market instincts can sometimes be more valuable than technological know-how or financial heft. For example, when Xerox PARC created the mouse, it was simply amazing. But it cost $300 to build and only worked for a few weeks. To make the mouse truly innovative required something quite different: constraints. Steve Jobs had the vision and market insight to add the constraints: the mouse must cost less than $15 to make and operate reliably for two years.
  4. Imagine perfection… To foster true process innovation we must summon the courage to acknowledge the deep areas of waste that are part of our standard work. This might include inspection or rework or moving or waiting that is so intrinsically a part of the way we work that we cannot envision the work without it. Summon the courage to put that waste on the table, calling it what it is. Go ahead and imagine the process without the steps that add no real value — that just compensate for a flaw somewhere in the process — and then take the time to search for ways to get to that vision.
  5. Leadership… Nothing is more important than the right form of leadership to empower and unleash an organization’s creative talents and energy.  An innovative culture is not the default position — it must be carefully created.

Read the full article…

3 Big Barriers to Innovation

Our previous post referenced a common obstacle to major process innovation as being a reluctance to challenge the “status-quo.”

Three additional and significant barriers to innovation are:

  1. Time… Many organizations cite the lack of time and attention to innovation as a major barrier because people are simply too busy to think about innovation. “If my boss’s boss is too busy to think about new and better ways of doing something, I better be too.” This is a good recipe for keeping things exactly the way they are while the world passes by.
  2. Too much at stake… Innovation requires risk taking, and large, well-established organizations simply have a lot on the plate to risk. When a well established company with a broad customer base introduces a new product, expectations are quite high and risks must be carefully weighed. Each potential innovation must be considered and evaluated in light of the existing portfolio of products and commitments. Innovation becomes much more complicated and difficult.
  3. Too many ideas… While everyone realizes we cannot innovate with too few ideas, we also can’t get anywhere with too many. Innovation requires a well disciplined process as well as a fast flowing stream of ideas. An organization needs to have an effective way to pivot from idea creation to sifting, sorting, choosing, and doing. Ideas can get in the way of deeds, and effective innovation requires both.

Now that we’ve identified some of the most common challenges to innovation, our next post will focus on specific ways to overcome these obstacles and to develop a culture of innovation.

The Way Things Could or Should Be

Our previous post discussed various ways of identifying waste, which can be defined as the difference between the way things are and the way things could or should be.

Imagineering” is an ideal process for making this type of determination, and for goal-setting, developing the best project plans, and for putting improvement ideas into practice.

As you may know, Imagineering was popularized in the 1940s by Alcoa to describe its blending of imagination and engineering. It was also adopted by Walt Disney a decade later, and is often referenced as a means of achieving “blue sky speculation,” a process where people generate ideas with no limitations…, where they try to achieve what “could or should be.”

Over the years we have consistently found that well-executed Imagineering workshops help people unleash their organization’s true potential and achieve breakthrough improvements.  Much more than traditional or simple brainstorming, the process starts with a strategic approach for imagining perfection, and ends with engineering this ideal state back down to earth.

You might consider the use of Imagineering as a means of generating innovative ideas and applying the principles to set goals and achieve breakthrough improvements.

The Hidden Cost of Disengaged Workers?

wordleengage4A young, seemingly fast-rising junior executive had been working at a large bank for just over six years. When he was asked about his job and how he felt about it he said, “The job’s OK.” His lack of enthusiasm was evident.

When pressed to say more he added, “Well, I’m not really learning much any more… ”

When asked if he was fully-engaged he said probably not but went on to say that he still did a great job. “I still give 100% and consider myself to be a great employee,” he said. Then, after a short pause, he added,” But I don’t give them 110% and  there’s a big difference between 100% and 110% — at least for me.”

When asked if he was out looking he responded, “No…, but I’m listening.”

When asked whether he told his boss how he was feeling he said, “Yeah, but….”

How many people in how many organizations feel like he does? He is bright, skilled, and might be an ideal candidate for a senior leadership position…if he stays.

But is he being made to feel like an important part of the team? Does anyone realize that he could be giving more?

Is he being “engaged?”

Among the many documented advantages of an engaged worker is the “discretionary” effort that they put forth… going the extra mile; the above-and-beyond attitude… giving 110%!

How many innovative ideas might that extra 10% yield?  How much more productivity? What impact might it have on customers or coworkers?

What are the real, (or hidden!) costs associated with not getting that extra 10%?

Funding Engagement & Improvement Initiatives Through ROI

engagementroiEarlier this year a Deloitte research summary reported that 87 percent of business leaders “cite organizational culture and employee engagement as their top challenge.”

Fortunately we don’t need to create new budgets to engage people, as outlined in a recent article published by the Enterprise Engagement Alliance. Instead, dollars can be spent more wisely by aligning engagement and improvement efforts to better-address all of the “levers of engagement,” and to improve both the work and workplace in measurable ways.

In many cases, organizations are already doing some of the fundamental work; the difference is to take a more strategic approach to these activities by applying proven engagement and continuous improvement best practices.

This approach will include:

  • Creating a formalized implementation plan and establishing performance measures so that progress can be tracked.
  • Developing realistic, achievable, and measurable goals and objectives.
  • Working with the leaders so that they can model the right behaviors and cascade the concepts to their reports and throughout the organization.
  • Identifying and quantifying opportunities for improvement and engagement.
  • Fostering an atmosphere of collaboration, innovation, continuous improvement, and fun.
  • Making sure people have the knowledge and skills needed to succeed.
  • Maintaining open lines of communication, including the rewarding and recognizing of people so that they feel supported in their efforts.
  • Measuring return on investment.

 

Change Like a Green Tomato

changeThe ability to anticipate, lead and manage change is a critical indicator of organizational success.

As suggested in a recent post,  strong leadership is a key requirement when it comes to driving change and continuous improvement; and as noted in one of last year’s posts, it is much easier to change when you can rather than when forced to do so!

This is a critically-important reality… too many organizations slip into complacency when things are going “well,” and only contemplate change when their performance is unsatisfactory — when they’re forced into it!

There are countless examples of how this latter approach can quickly lead to disaster! Kodak, Polaroid, and Blockbuster, to name just a few…

Instead, change and continuous improvement must become the “cultural way.”

Possibly Jim Press, former President of Toyota Motor North America, summed-it-up best during an interview by saying, “Toyota wants to be a green tomato.”

His point was that green tomatoes are in a constant state of change; they know their futures are still ahead of them, while red tomatoes have stopped growing.