Innovation – Do You Have Your Head In The Sand?

Innovation head in the sandDo you have your head in the sand regarding your Innovation efforts? Could you be caught in the dreaded cycle of ‘Non-Innovation’?

Let me explain. Over a number of years, I have observed that many businesses enter what I call the ‘Cycle of Non-Innovation’. Businesses for whatever reason, decide that they must innovate. They also decide that the initial spend is an investment and so should produce an appropriate return. So far so good.

The initial state is what I call ‘Market Directed Innovation’. It is a state in which a business feels it must respond to something in the marketplace. Not wishing to spend too much money, a business will decide, we can do this, it’s not difficult. For many, this becomes a state of ‘False Confidence’. You think you know what to do and how to do it but don’t.

As time progresses a business will realise that there is more to this Innovation lark than meets the eye. maybe you realise that there is a lack of planning, finance or even management. You are now in a state I call ‘Scramble’.

You now carry on, perhaps spending even more. By now you have not made an investment, but have a significant cost instead. Your spend has gone up but there is no return on your investment. Enter the ‘Panic’ state.

At this point, your competitors, who were behind you, are now overtaking. You must do something. And the next state? Next, you progress to ‘Market Directed Innovation’. You are in a cycle which will become ever more costly and ever more dangerous. On the way around, you do have a couple of opportunities to break out but the more you go on, the more costly and more brutal the interventions become.

So please don’t get caught with your head in the sand, help is available. Please get in touch via my contact page to find out how to break the cycle of Non-Innovation. If you simply would like to get some useful hints and tips on a monthly basis then please subscribe to my newsletter.

Where does Creativity happen?

Inspiring meetingsThis is a question that often passes our lips. Where does Creativity happen then? One possible answer is ‘everywhere and anywhere’ but really the original question ought to be better framed. For instance are we talking about where creative activities might take place within an organisation? Maybe we are talking about the mechanisms by which individuals might come up with creative ideas or which parts of the human brain are being used?

So I shall try to shine a light on both of these areas.

Traditionally Creativity would have been found in areas such as Marketing or Product Development, or rather that is where you would have been told to find it and where employees would have been given permission to be creative. In fact Creativity can be found (and always could be found) in all parts of an organisation. The big difference is that now we know that all employees can be creative independent of their job function. This means that in order to tap into this creativity the mechanisms that are used to capture and recognise ideas must have a greater reach.

There are also issues of permission and the ability to handle ambiguity for those in management positions. Things are no longer confined to neat boxes.

But where does creativity happen for individuals? The actual ideas are formed in our heads (the easy bit) and then we have to externalise them somehow (often the hard bit). We can be creative anywhere but creative situations fall into a small number of categories. We are often creative when faced with adversity or tight deadlines. However, over do the challenges and we often give up. The right amount of pressure is critical.

Creativity is often found where there is some sort of tension (not necessarily war like tension). People with varying backgrounds and opinions will often create the right atmosphere as long as they can respect the viewpoints of others.

We can be creative individually but often need to dream or daydream. Either that or distract the part of our brains that screams ‘no you can’t do that so that the creative part of your brain can have a party.

These are only my opinions. It does not really matter where creativity happens just as long as it does.

Ban the committees – its better for Innovation

I urge you to ban the committees. Does your organisation create a plethora of steering committees? Even worse if you work in the public sector you might have been subjected to the dreaded ‘Task and Finish group’.

These groups, and others like them are one of the major reasons that organisations claim that Innovation fails. Here’s why.

Most group members do nothing at all, they are there for political reasons or in some cases to sabotage the process. Committees meet infrequently and are thus ineffective in getting things done. They do however have one significant output – frustration!

Committees tend to be:

Full of lazy control freaks. A bit harsh perhaps but these people don’t want to get their hands dirty. They just want to take the credit for success. Often too, they demand creativity but just want other employees (the project team) to carry out their bidding.

Isolated. If people have not been ‘at the coal face’ for a long while (or maybe not at all) then they may not have any insights to provide at all.

Slow and political. Project teams are expected to be flexible but those steering the process tend to be the opposite. The decision making process is bureaucratic and is governed by the frequency of meetings. Nothing can get signed off without the correct signatories present!

So what can you do to make things a little easier?

It is important to connect senior management and other relevant stakeholders to your project team.  Instead of a steering committee, make these people an extension to your project team. They need not be with you all of the time but could, for example, engage in the following way:

Spend time in the project instead of supervising it. Get them participating in workshops or other brainstorming events. This will demonstrate commitment and remove the appearance of remoteness (aloofness).

Learn to create rather than evaluate. Don’t judge but add insights, views and ideas to the mix.

Make decisions immediately instead of waiting for the next committee meeting, causing delays of many days (or more usually) weeks. Decisions can be made ‘on the spot’ because executives are more closely connected to the process and have all of the information necessary at their fingertips.

This can take a bit more effort to get going but it is often the case that senior managers do actually like to be involved. You can make Innovation work, just ban the committees.

So next time someone suggests a steering committee of any sort, say ‘no’ and invite them to spend some time getting their hands dirty.

Innovation – the hardest steps

Many companies are ill equipped for the trial-and-error process that is part of real innovation. They stumble in the first steps, the first few yards.

These first steps are a critical period when an idea moves from concept to paper and then to market. It is there your ideas will fly or fail, and maybe take the company with it. It is the most fragile time for a new idea. This is because every great new idea is partly right and partly wrong. Because of this one of the most critical skills for both individuals and an organisation is the reduction of uncertainty.

When starting out you must be systematic about what you do, if not you are vulnerable on several counts. The first is getting discouraged and quickly giving up, or if you can’t identify the things you are doing wrong, spending a lot of time and money pursuing what ultimately proves to be a fatally flawed strategy.

You can also get lost when something that you thought was a great opportunity turns out not to be so. It is also common to put the wrong people in charge of a project, people without the right technical skills or perhaps lacking the managerial skills to handle the uncertainty and ambiguity that will exist for a while.

You or your business may simply run out of ‘innovation fuel’. We tend to be optimistic about the money and time needed to go from concept to world beating product or service. Innovation costs more and takes longer!

Many businesses often try to run before they can walk. They have a great idea and have produced prototypes or maybe pilot production lines. They have not quite got the recipe or the economics right but cross their fingers and hope that all goes well when they quadruple their output!

These are all things that any individual or business may fall foul of but there is one last thing that lies in wait for large corporations. They all sit on the bottoms, sifting through large piles of paper. They make plans to innovate but never take action. When their endless planning meetings fail to deliver they conclude that innovation has failed them.

Innovation is essentially a trial and error process until you have got that idea into production. Without action there is no trial. With no trial there is no error and with no error there is no learning.

Improving Your Return On Innovation

Return On InnovationDon’t get carried away

We often get excited about Innovation, especially since most of it is fun. Some people can get carried away and forget that the name of the game is to make money. So how can we calculate and improve our return on Innovation? If we do make money then we should be maximising the amount that we do make. This is important both for stakeholders and to reinvest in future enterprises.

One of the major ways that we can improve the return on Innovation is to make sure that we have possible patents in mind during our research and prototyping phases. Do not leave this any later as IP that is in the public domain cannot be patented.

Don’t leave IP until last

Innovation teams are often isolated from a company’s patent ‘machine’. This can mean that innovation processes can move forward with little or no consideration of whether competitors can copy the resulting products. The innovation process itself is fairly well protected since what is kept in the heads of employees is hard to copy. The resulting ‘innovations’ can be somewhat easier to copy. They may not be a direct copy but they will result in customers going elsewhere to buy cheap imitations. If the IP contained is not patented then there are two major issues to consider:

  1. Competitors may simply work out how we have created a product and then copy it, reducing its value to us
  2. For high value items such as pharmaceuticals we lose the ability to licence products and hence generate revenue if we do not wish to take them to market./

Companies may then not attain expected returns because competitors can legally copy the innovation—be it a product, technology or otherwise—without incurring legal penalties.

Patents are not always necessary

It is not always necessary to protect innovation outputs with patents e.g if  a product has a short shelf-life or where the company may desire to protect technology by treating it as a trade secret. However, for innovation programmes where business strategy  assumes exclusivity, companies must usually seek  patent protection.

Also, the absence of a function that provides patent expertise may mean that innovations are not properly audited  for risks of potential patent infringement or other IP protection infringement until significant development effort and expense have been expended.