Innovation efforts, like any other, whether it be safety, quality or ethics, will experience a decline in effectiveness through entropy unless there are human beings held responsible to continuously renew organizational commitment in ever-evolving ways. When this is done well, systems and accountabilities are built and steadily improved upon to drive the 12 Strategic Action Areas.
The focus we’re speaking of needs to be on the underlying enablers of innovation, not solely on the artifacts or outcomes. Mature organizations already have an innovation pipeline and some type of stage-gate-like process. And yes, there needs to be accountability to good throughout in that pipeline. It is too easy, however, to get obsessed with the metrics associated with that pipeline and devalue all the “soft” activity that energizes and sustains the culture feeding the pipeline. As one culture auditor at Novo Nordisk told us “The soft stuff is the hard stuff.” (Novo Nordisk’s culture auditors are technically called facilitators, but they were auditing the core cultural dynamics of each business unit every three years.)
Additionally, this responsibility will die a slow painful death if it’s relegated too far down in the organization. As pressured as executive roundtable agendas are, senior leaders themselves need to be vigilant for inattention. Innovation culture must be a standing agenda item. Budget, effort and human resource allocation need to be protected during times of success and downturns. Success breeds the arrogance of “keep doing our core as we’ve been doing it, we don’t need to innovate,” and downturns lead to the politically nasty competition for resources that kill longer term strategic innovation efforts. The structures and policies to drive innovation must be built to outlast both upturn and recessionary scenarios.
Innovation leaders need to support the organization to seek new value through human creativity in every function and value stream of the organization. Whether your organization looks for innovation opportunities with the help of Clay Christensen’s “3 Levels” or Rowan Gibson’s “4 Lenses” or the Doblin Group’s “10 Types”, the focus needs to be everywhere. New value can, and should be steadily created throughout an organization’s ecosystem.
Here are a few real-world examples:
1. In our practice, we’ve seen the following pattern play out three times in the last five years in Fortune 500 Companies that we, as of yet, have only worked with at the departmental level.
Each placed “innovation” among their core values and recruited a champion. Here are the 3 ways the champions were recruited:
a) A great innovator in their sector was enticed out of retirement
b) A high-potential employee was given the responsibility as a career opportunity
c) A person at the end of their career was provided the offer as a way to leave a lasting legacy prior to retirement
Each’s task was to energize innovation enterprise-wide. Our assessment was that they were each up to the task and curious enough to learn what it would take to do well but, regrettably, all three positions reported to a C-1 boss that was either uninterested in innovation or was unsuccessful at winning the resource battle with his own C-1 peers. Sadly, all the positions were soon eliminated and innovation “responsibility” either reverted to the C-1 position, with no accountability, or was delegated to an individual with narrow responsibility and little power. We get regular e-mails from the employees at these organizations crying out for structures and supports to unleash their potential, and to remove inhibitor behaviors and mechanisms. Time will tell if this innovation value (or even the companies themselves) will survive.
2. In 2002 we were working with a business unit in a Large Pharmaceutical Company when that company decided to add “innovation” to its corporate values. To roll this out to its employees, the company created posters and placed tent cards, with the new value list, on their cafeteria tables globally. Charmed that they had chosen to add innovation as a value, we picked up a tent card and read the descriptions. As we moved down the list, we were impressed that, after each value, there was a paragraph that spoke of the behavioral aspects of living it. Integrity, for instance, was followed by a paragraph that read something like “We hold ourselves accountable for doing what we say we will do, invite feedback for moments when we are out of integrity, and offer feedback to others in return.” Very behavioral. The innovation value was followed by this: “Innovation is the life-blood of our company.” Full stop. A year later, we were engaged in an executive coaching capacity by the senior leader struggling emotionally and logistically with the best way to lay off 20,000 valuable employees. Were we Wall Street analysts, we would have served investors well if we had issued a sell order immediately after seeing that tent card.
3. Vicarious Visions, a video game studio, has a physical environment that promotes playfulness, team collaboration and cross-team conversations. When working at their site, we see things like a central courtyard with a common kitchen, foosball and other action games, free food events, an exercise area and lab space for cross disciplinary design events. Fortunately, they do not stop at what could be the easy “dangerous obsession” and allow these physical space innovation strategies to seduce them into a false vision of complete effort. They’re also a good example of “Focus.” They have a diverse executive leadership team that routinely engages in conversations about how to bring more innovation into all phases of game development as well as the overall organizational culture. They develop action plans to follow up on those ideas. This company has done a great job at both having strong functional focus and balancing their efforts in order to create an excellent overall innovation culture.