Innovation at companies: often touted but lacks the right toolbox – Series 1 of 2

We recently stumbled upon a McKinsey article on innovation, leadership and organization culture – and couldn’t help but reminisce about the many attempts at innovation by ourselves as individuals, but also, other people that we interact with professionally

For starters, innovation has many names and allusions: thinking out of the box, creativity, pushing boundaries, Blue Ocean thinking, etc. But what is innovation, in simple management speak?

Innovation generally refers to changing processes or creating more effective methods, products, and ideas

Innovation may cover the rolling out of new business ideas, to coming up with cutting-edge products and services. Innovation is a prerequisite to remaining relevant in a turbulent business environment

Successful and sustainable innovation is hard-work. Sustainable innovation, beyond the luck-driven, one-off initiative is rare. There is no doubt that there is less success and more failure when people embark on innovation journeys. And for the latter reason, people don’t want to commit to innovating, beyond the usual touting of innovation initiatives in strategy papers, business plans, individual performance objectives, etc. And, it’s mostly rhetoric

According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, there are over 30,000 new products introduced every year, and 95 percent fail.

Truth be told, people, especially those employed by others, rightly or wrongly, fear that setting themselves hard-stop goals and objectives to do with innovation, may result in individual failure and harsh judgment

And as a result, innovation commitments are more often than not woolly, and heavily caveated in qualified-baptism like: stretch-goals, push-goals, etc. While these goals are audacious and apparently outside the box, and meant to bring about new cutting-edge knowledge plus products/services, the irony is that there are no dire consequences if they aren’t achieved. Reason – they were considered too big, complex and almost impossible to attain unless you are Arnold Einstein. This is a misnomer, that we at the Effectiveness lab believe needs recognition and fixing by management gurus

We dare ask the questions: is everyone an innovator? Are organizations asking the right people to innovate? If organizations have confidence in those individuals they ask to innovate – we pose a basic question: why would such people want to innovate for someone else, their employer (even allowing for those that weren’t created to go solo), and not themselves at their own company? After all, entrepreneurship is so rewarding that they are better off innovating for self and getting all the bounty that would accrue – right?

No wonder, according to McKinsey: Senior executives generally feel philosophical about their efforts to promote innovation: 65 percent of those we surveyed felt “somewhat,” “a little,” or “not at all” confident about them.

The majority of the above executives made it to the top via a bottom-up egalitarian model; they were selected from a common pool of staff at the firm. We should also add that initially, they weren’t necessarily hired for their innovation skills

McKinsey also further notes that Innovative cultures don’t magically descend from heaven. The top two motivators are strong leaders who encourage and protect innovation, and top executives who actively manage and promote it. In fact, senior executives say their most common sin against innovation is talking it up but failing to act. The second is a failure to model innovation by encouraging behavior such as risk-taking and a willingness to consider new ideas.

The Effectiveness lab opines that companies find themselves in this innovation muddle because they are asking or expecting the wrong people to innovate. They are also using the wrong innovation delivery vehicle. Is innovation not a human-brain/DNA matter, before everything else to include policy, culture, etc.?

So, how do leaders, managers, and organizations achieve sustainable innovation? See you next week for Series 2

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Categories: You, the Leader!

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