Sunday, 1 November 2009

Innovation Processes are Useful, but Innovative People are Essential

There is an assumption in many organisations that focusing on innovation processes is a kind of industrialisation of innovation, that with the right processes, then you don’t need to worry about employing genuinely innovative people, anyone can and will be successful within a great process.

And it’s true, up to a point: especially when the focus is upon optimising existing products and services. But when the environment changes radically, then the issue of having the right people to innovate becomes important.

I have noticed that innovation consultancies tend to focus upon time-intensive innovation process consultation with a few useful techniques thrown in. This is because whilst they help to focus attention on developing a shared understanding of an agreed approach to turning an invention into an innovation, and on the need to understand customers’ needs, such consulting enables at least 5 additional benefits:

Consultancies can sell high-priced consulting time, acquire practice and gain another case study to use with new clients,
• The illusion of purposeful activity without having to question the customer’s existing strategic assumptions, political hierarchies, and investment rationales,
• Gives confidence to an employing customer with academic mindset that measures good intentions by the size of investment,
• Enables leadership to sponsor the solution to a problem that appears to be solveable, rather than forcing leadership to work on the real problem that they prefer not to discuss,
• Reinforces the myth of leadership knowing what it is doing.

Whilst I disagree with the attractive book-selling post-rationalist approach of Jim Collins in “Good To Great” (2001) and Tom Peters & Rob Waterman in “In Search of Excellence” in retrofitting plausible success models onto case studies which subsequently decayed a few months or years later in public, both hint at the importance of getting the right people involved in changing an organisation. As Collins puts it, leaders must understand: “the importance of getting the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus, and (only) then (figuring) out where to drive it.” More revealingly, on the same page, Collins observes that “a company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people”.

But what and who are the right people, how do I recognise them; and what do I do about myself?


Mark said...

One would hope, perhaps naively, that a good innovation process would define the importance of people explicitly as a critical foundation to the process. Unfortunately this is not the case in many organizations.

I had the misfortune to work with one of the European telcos who had the most negative, risk intolerant, non-collegiate director in charge of their innovation activities. The role of leader in innovation is critical - and this was clearly an example of bad practice in action. To be fair to the organization.... cancel that, I cannot be fair to the organization. They took a critically important function, and gave a senior manager a sideways move so that he would cause less trouble to other people, and in so doing killed off innovation activities for best case 18 months.

My firm, Imaginatik, did some work on integrating people and personality styles / attributes as a core component of innovation process work. The result was the Orchid Model and instrument, designed to provide a framework for handling people within an innovation context.

The key intellectual consideration is whether people form part of an 'innovation process' and if so, how does one best handle them. In my view, a human-centric process such as innovation can only exist with people - finding a bunch of robots and making them innovate will have to wait for a later version of the Terminator movies!

Mark Turrell
CEO, Imaginatik plc

Nick Milton said...

Victor, do you beleive some people are inherently more innovative than others? Or do you think that there is innovation in everyone?

Personally I tend more to the latter, and therefore feel that innovation processes, if widespread enough and simple enough, can draw out the innovation from everybody. OK, they may not be the step-changing leaps of product innovation, but they can still deliver a lot of value.

One client had the motto "Little Innovations From Everyone" which had a pleasing Acronym, and which, I think, was a good vision of an innovation culture.

Matt Moore said...

There do seem to be people who are more naturally "innovative" than others - and this shows itself in terms of their tolerance for risk, resourcefulness, and refusal to settle for "normal" perspectives. However I don't think it's the case that innovative people are born rather than made.

I believe (and there is some evidence to support me) that it's possible to cultivate innovation-friendly behaviours within and among people - and that context plays a major role in this. As Mark notes, leadership is a critical part of this context.

The question is whether "innovation processes" as they are commonly deployed cultivate innovation. I think Nick is only partly right because many so-called innovation processes (such as stage-gating) actually help to kill it stone dead.

I would reframe Victor's post as: If you want to make innovation happen* then you need to pick who you involve with care - esp. early on.

*Not "if you want to run an innovation program" because I think that's something else entirely.