World financial meltdown or no world financial meltdown, companies are getting back into the innovation game. I’m back from maternity leave as of about six months ago (she’s 9 months old and gorgeous, thanks) and anecdotally, I can feel the uptick in interest in innovation.
I’m fielding lots of calls from clients that go something like this:
“Three or four months ago, we did a corporate strategic planning effort and decided we need to be more innovative. We aren’t bad at continuous improvements. In fact, we develop new improvements to our systems every day. But we know we aren’t innovative enough. What are some of the things we should be doing to get ahead?”
Of course, that’s a big question. But here is a good place to start: take the fuzziness out of innovation.
Innovation is a much-touted, overused term that means different things to different people. Its meaning is unclear, which makes it suspicious in some quarters. Just about every executive is using the word to describe their enterprise’s future – and every enterprise isn’t innovative.
Some people believe that innovation is a different sort of beast, not like other management problems. This is absolutely true. As I’ve written about before, it is a fundamentally paradoxical thing for most corporations to try to introduce innovation into their enterprises. This is because enterprises are optimised to deliver predictable, reliable, industrialised outcomes. Innovation is none of these things. It’s fundamentally unpredictable. You cannot know when a game changing idea will appear and you certainly cannot mandate it.
But here’s the thing: just because innovation is unpredictable doesn’t mean it should be fuzzy. If you want to innovate, you should be crystal clear on a couple of things:
– What does innovation mean to you? Gartner’s definition of innovation is “new ideas that are implemented to create business value”. An even simpler definition is, “doing things differently to achieve superior outcomes.” In other words, our working definition is pretty broad on purpose. You can and should be more specific for your purposes. What is innovation for you? Game changing? Incremental? Where should it be focused? Will you only try things with a clear ROI or is experimentation okay?
– How much risk is acceptable to you? If you’re innovating, you’re probably going to fail a lot before you get it right. If you’re not failing, you’re either really, really lucky or not being very innovative. Probably the latter. So, think about how much failure and how much risk is okay to take on right now and prepare for that. Better yet, create a failure target. As in, if my team isn’t failing at least 25% of the time, it’s not working hard enough.
Just getting a little clarity on these two areas can help down the road when you’re facing decisions about what to keep and what to cut from your pile of ideas.