Six Questions To Drive Your Innovation Strategy

Back when I started my career (or when dinosaurs ruled the earth) there was a very different perspective of innovation and innovators.

They were an elite group of secret, almost mythical, creatures toiling away in labs far from the prying eyes of competitors or even colleagues without a C-suite designation. As a lowly advertising guy, you never saw these folks until your client was prepared to unveil the fruits of “Project Thunderstruck”. Another sign o’ the times — innovation projects weren’t funded unless they had some kinda quasi-military-superhero name.

That’s all changed.

Today every corporate press release, LinkedIn profile and company blog isn’t complete without innovation, innovative, innovator in every second sentence.

The perceived norm for innovation has moved from top-secret skunkworks to open and crowd-sourced, from the company-knows-best model to a consumer-collaborative one. Today all your employees are expected to be innovation engines and storied organizations like Lego, DeWalt and DHL actually want us, the general public, to weigh-in on their projects.

However does all this innovation talk really reflect a true sense of the market? Has innovation, like other popular phrases such as “creativity” and “transformation”, really seeped into the bloodstream of organizations.

Might I suggest these questions could help determine your real appetite for innovation;

Innovation, like Strategy, is an amorphously-defined word by many executives.

Are you looking for “big I” Innovation that will redefine your business and category or “little I” innovation where you’re polishing and refining processes, products and services incrementally? Simplistic as it may seem, if there isn’t a universally-understood definition of what innovation in your company, category or sector means, how can you expect your people to know what’s innovative or not…and then act accordingly?

I’m not talking the trappings of innovative or creative workplaces like beanbags, open concept offices and bring-your-dog-to-work-Fridays but a real cultural environment to foster innovation. Are your employees encouraged to tinker, play, build, question? Is that tinkering, playing, building deliberate, unexpected or unstructured? Do you have a process or framework that purposefully moves innovation from ideation to development and deployment? If you’re really committed to this innovation thang, it requires deliberation and purpose. Innovation happenstance makes for great scenes in a movie, not in the workplace.

Not all organizations can be Innovation legends like 3M — that’s why there are brilliant innovation consultancies like Idea Couture, IDEO and Fahrenheit 212 — BUT you can’t expect innovation to take hold if your Culture — and your organizational design — don’t allow for it. When you’re Head of Innovation isn’t lockstep with your COO and your Head of Talent and Resources, you’re only ensuring that Innovation happens at the edges of your Culture, not the centre.

Many folks (way smarter than me) working in innovation consultancies tell me that many executives still pay lip-service to innovation because they’re still obsessed with maximizing efficiencies and reducing operating costs. And let’s be clear, shareholders and Wall Street reward CEO’s who automate and “strip costs outta the system” They’re focused on growth through more tried-and-true initiatives.

And when those have been maximized, going out and buying another company as the engine for future growth — look no further than 3G’s Unilever acquisition efforts lately. These are important, even necessary, pursuits but they really only make your current organization more efficient — they don’t catalyze your organization to be more effective.

Innovation is hard and not always successful. Google encouragingly returns 33 million results for “innovation failures”. However, if you genuinely buy into the potential of innovation you’re looking for ways to put jet fuel in the engine of your organization, not ways to make the windscreen and hubcaps shinier.

We’ve all read about Kodak, with an employee base of over a hundred thousand, being disrupted by Instagram with less than twenty employees. A spectacular story and a genuine cautionary tale but the story has a direct correlation to your commitment to innovation too. If you’re genuinely committed to innovation you’re deliberately and diligently seeking out innovative examples to watch, mimic or outright copy. If you’re not, I can guarantee your competition is. The flip-side of innovation as a growth engine is innovation as an engine for your demise.

Innovation is scary. It means doing new things, with new people, new frameworks, all for the first time. Its also not 100% guaranteed to succeed. That’s enough to test the mettle of the bravest CEO. All sturm und drang aside, that’s why consultancies like IDEO, Frog Design and Idea Couture have well-defined processes and experience traversing clients through those bumpy waters. But, trust me, it will be choppy and disruptive. If the thought of that disruption causes a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, I’d suggest you’re not really ready.

But, here in Canada, we’re seeing advertising agencies pushing an innovation agenda, deep public funding of organizations and Incubators like MaRs and even Financial institutions like Scotiabank actively getting into the innovation business.

Such a fundamental point, perhaps I should’ve started here. You’re not really into innovation unless you have genuinely set aside real budgets and accountability for it. And not innovation as an intellectual “what if” exercise but as a demonstrable contributor to the company. Is there P&L attached to your innovation or have you merely added the word “innovation” to someone’s existing job description? If there’s no skin in the game or someone’s feet aren’t to the fire to deliver, then, mixed metaphors aside, innovation is a pet project, or worse a distraction, to your business.

As this wonderful article in The Atlantic suggests, innovation has a complicated, sometimes bloody history. However as the word — and all the accompanying descriptors — become more widely used, I think it is critical that each organization puts a stake in the ground.

Is innovation a real imperative for your company or merely the latest Bright Shiny Object?

I’d love your thoughts and feedback. Are there other determinants of companies truly committed to innovation.

Sound off folks.

Networker. Marketing Provocateur. Loves travelling - love my 2 daughters more. Perpetually curious.