Innovation can be a tricky game. Three reasons we’ve found why innovation is hard are
- The future is unpredictable
- Innovation is often not approached in the best way
- Inaction – people won’t agree on what to do
How does teaminnovation address the three major challenges of innovation ? … and what is the one extra major consideration ?
These are the four parts of teaminnovation. Read on to look at them in more detail.
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
– Alan Kay, pioneer of the Graphical User Interface.
This was a maxim embraced by Steve Jobs. He’s absolutely right, and if you have the ability, determination and ambition for the achievements of Steve Jobs then you should set-to and create your own Apple Inc. However, this approach is not for everyone – many valuable innovations can be made on a more human scale, and these tend to be the challenges most of us face.
Since the future is unpredictable, innovation can be a risky business.
teaminnovation helps steer innovation towards the “right thing” (or the right improvement) by helping to prioritise the critical choices and make decisions about opportunities and design of your future product or service. The teaminnovation approach then helps to ensure you have the right agreement and commitment to this vision. Much of the core discipline needed here is marketing, but with critical elements of creativity, practicality and ways to gain all important stakeholder buy-in.
Many organisations don’t get involved with innovation very often – people spend most of their days getting on with things as they are. Innovation can be unfamiliar territory. Though starting out seems easy when everyone is buoyed by the thrill of their new venture, care is needed to making innovation a lasting success.
To see why, let’s look at two extremes.
Innovation is widely associated with creativity and often with the flash of inspiration brought by a “light-bulb moment” brings. These beliefs in organisations encourage use of suggestion schemes, brainstorming or ideas competitions to find new venture or new product.
Schemes lead to anything from a flood to a trickle of inspiration. We have found a number problems to avoid when handling this spark of creativity to prevent spirits being dampened the later:
- Often, the idea was not “well rounded” in the first place – it has one or more fatal flaws which are not apparent at the start.
- It is too far outside the experience of the “inventor” to bring to fruition in a practical way
- The “innovation” does not actually address a real need – something that someone is prepared to pay a premium to have solved, or are prepared to switch from their current supplier to you.
- It’s not new at all – and this product, or something dangerously close, exists already.
All these cases tend to mean that the ideas did not, for whatever reason, consider the multitude of factors needed to be negotiated to meet the starting expectations of success.
It’s a sobering reality that most “light-bulb moments” which go onto success actually emerge from considerable reflection and distillation of a great deal of accumulated knowledge. When an idea does come from a flash of inspiration, it is more likely to be an incremental changes than the “new venture” often being sought. Neither of these circumstances are necessarily a bad thing, but they are not attractive realities when
It is worth remembering that Thomas Edison, the inspiration for the light-bulb moment and an inventor of great commercial success knew about the inevitability of focussed effort.
“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”
– Thomas A. Edison
The brilliant idea that came from your business brain-storming session may be in the “one percent inspiration” category – but it can be a tricky thing to handle. Somewhere along the line, the other ninety-nine percent perspiration will probably need to be expended and wrapped about that great idea.
The teaminnovation approach helps to mature the creative spirit that can benefit all innovative ventures, while preventing you being caught out by one of the four problems above.
Even if an idea does have the spark of genius, innovation success may prove elusive in an organisation that is not used to innovation. Far from the heat of creative sparks, process, measurement and project management are quite rightly the mainstay of modern offices and work-places.
The age of management science, often attributed as starting with Taylorism in the 1880’s and 1890’s encourages the application of the scientific method, with a history stretching back much earlier. These approaches encourage the application of scientific methods, process, rigour and continuous improvement.
They are suited to tasks, however large or small scale, which are repetitive, or at least potentially highly systematic. They can do a lot of good to regularise results and so understandably many managers like them.
Innovation is characterised by words such as change, value creation, creativity, originality, novelty, development, design. These are not associated with tightly any defined processes.
Project Manage it !
Facing the uncertainty of innovation, and perhaps with corporate memories of ventures which turned sour, many leaders look to bring predictable results to innovation ventures by Project Managing activities to bring their ideas to fruition. Project Management (like other process based methods) can play a valuable role in reducing the unpredictability inherent in innovation. Many good Project Managers will wish to follow the sensible rule that a project has a “defined beginning and end” and to insist that “The primary challenge of project management is to achieve all of the project goals” (Wikipedia). These project goals, by definition, must be clear at the beginning in order to show they have been achieved at the end. As well as necessary fixed time and funding constraints, many management teams also determine that a project to develop a new service, product or process should start with a fixed specification.
Often the specification defines the product in the form of a finished item, which provides stakeholders with a reassuring sense of “what they are going to get”. However this approach misses out a number of valuable aspects to best practice innovation which the teaminnovation approach supports. Two major missing early activities are discovery and trade-offs. Discovering what priority functions an innovative product might have ( or facilities for a new service) is a substantial early stage of innovation and forms the basis of a marketing brief. As this marketing brief starts to firm up, the need for trade-offs between features and specification elements emerges.
Trade-offs are also invariably needed between, amongst others, costs, time to market and considerations of new or existing supply chains. The trade-off challenge is encapsulated by considering the contrast between engaging with new-to-the-world creative ideas (which may be high risk and high reward) against succeeding in incremental change which is the forte of standard Project Management disciplines (which aims to reduce risk at each stage yet may risk the product being beaten by the competition).
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
– Albert Einstein
Creativity, process and project management all have worthy roles to play in successful innovation, but they need applied at the right time, with the right emphasis and with the right adaptation to an innovative task.
Successfully negotiating the full range of trade-offs with an appropriate business perspective can become one of the key factors in innovation success. teaminnovation explores successful innovation techniques and illustrates a step by step approach to make the journey more manageable.
Bringing the creative sparks in your team along the path of the same innovation journey as the project manager or quality assurance professional is the third aspect of teaminnovation.
Teams often find it hard to agree on what do to when innovation is the goal. Strong, differing opinions can result in disagreement and people tend to hate such conflict – it’s stressful and feels like time wasting.
Different points of view often come from stakeholders with different experience, responsibilities and tolerances. It might not seem like it at the time, but this diversity is exactly what is needed to make innovation succeed. The more radical, the more diverse the opinions you may need to draw on.
Hearing the case for course of action, then ruling on design or marketing decisions with a “iron will” can work if you have sufficient genius to not put a foot wrong (or you are the sole business owner for example); for the rest of us, outside input needs to be turned to a source of advantage.
There are plenty of challenges to garner the best input from a diverse range of stakeholders. From the passionately uninvolved “gate-keeper” to the committed visionary who will never compromise on her ideas. There is nearly always a way to get them usefully engaged, but sometimes this is not a straightforward task.
People don’t always offer their views as neatly packaged actionable suggestions and this can be a source of frustration. However, with some careful and appropriate steering, different perspectives can offer valuable views on unexpected risks, how to engage a wider part of your market or new ways to solve a problem.
Equally, some we need to be careful about pushing objections quietly to the back-burner, or assuming that giving a disagreement an airing is sure to put it to bed. It would be naive to suggest that everyone’s intentions remain benign in the heat of competing ideas. So, as well as the debate being in the open, the resulting decision (whether or not a consensus agreement) needs to be recorded for future reference without making turning this into a victory charter.
teaminnovation pays particular attention to ways of airing contrasting views then building decisions with as much consensus as the situation allows. Firm decisions provide clear communications for a well built team to get behind and encourage followership to support those appointed to lead.
Although I have argued for the benefits of examining options at the edges of your brief, no programme should try to boil the ocean – everything needs to have limits.
Nonetheless, ripples from innovation can stray outside of the defined brief. These tremors may pose risks or present opportunities. It may be that a programme unearths these issues in the course of their work, or that they are unaware of the potential consequences. In either case, a level of governance is need to provide oversight, to address risks which are beyond the reach of a team and to consider opportunities which are bigger or beyond the scope of the programme in hand. At the risk of getting all Rumsfeldian about this, issues may also loom up without anyone expecting them.
In all these situations the senior leaders in your organisation – or whoever commissioned the work – needs to earn their keep either resolving the uncertainty (showing leadership), commissioning help or accepting the risk / lost opportunity. If you are part of a very small organisation this role may fall to you. In this case taking time to get away from the detail of your innovation work and reflecting on the wider implications can be crucial
Embracing uncertainty is the final piece of the teaminnovation quad. It hints at the “everything else” that needs to be watched with a weather eye but must not be allowed to consume the team or cause paralysis. Deciding what to do means distinguishing between burning platforms, to-do lists and ocean boiling experiments.