M-Prize Menu

Innovating Innovation


For all the talk about innovation, in business books, blogs, and boardrooms, few companies have figured out how to make innovation a way of life.  Too often innovation is still something that happens occasionally, in pockets, rather than everywhere, all the time.  What limits innovation in most organizations isn’t a lack of resources or a shortage of human creativity, but a dearth of pro-innovation values, structures, and processes.  In too many organizations one finds …

  • Few, if any, employees who have been trained as business innovators.
  • No commonly agreed-upon definition of innovation and hence no way of comparing innovation performance across teams and divisions.
  • A jumble of bureaucratic hurdles that makes it difficult for innovators to get the time and resources they need to test their ideas.
  • A lack of explicit innovation goals and line managers who aren’t held accountable for mentoring new business initiatives.
  • Compensation and promotion criteria that don’t explicitly include innovation performance
  • Innovation metrics that are patchy and poorly constructed.

Most of our management methods were designed (a very long time ago) to promote discipline, control, alignment and predictability—all laudable goals, and all potentially antagonistic to innovation.  The real innovation challenge is innovating around innovation itself.  In the same way that companies have reinvented their business processes (sourcing, manufacturing, distribution and customer support) for the sake of efficiency and agility, they must now reinvent their management processes (planning, training, resource allocation, measurement, hiring, compensation, etc.) for the sake of innovation

Challenge Question: 

How can we retune our management processes so they become powerful catalysts, rather than barriers, to innovation? How do we make innovation an every day, every person capability?


You need to register in order to submit a comment.

hank-kune's picture

Although retuning management practices can be useful in the short term, in the broader context it can be counterproductive, as it focuses attention on helping organizations and individuals cope with a system that no longer works. All of the issues in the context sketched above are true, and "fixing" them will certainly improve matters in the short term, but can also lead to a kind of sub-optimization. It should not stop us from striving to address the deeper systemic issues.

If we want real renewal, we must innovate the system itself, and not just within the system. As Richard Barker points out, the entire innovation system - the innovation ecosystem as it is often called - has many players and involves forces deeper than those at play in individual organizations. Perhaps we need 'systemic innovators' more than 'business innovators.' A key question then becomes, How can we stimulate systemic thinking in order to address systemic innovation?

frederic-jleconte's picture

As we struggle to move from intention to real new attitude some symboles will help.
For instance it is a waste to gather individuals and groups into ageing and boring seminars patterns, during so conservative 9-5 meetings in brown hotel rooms and pretend to turn them into innovators thanks to a set of brainstorming gimmicks.Easy to organize because plug and play services for lazy organizers.
We must be much more serious and meaningful about reality of surprise and ideas rising.
Gather people at night, send them with unknown destination tickets and we will get a fresher start.
Plus this process of artificial stimulation should not even be necessary when we decide to change all scheduling and office collective time and physical location process.

patrick-pennefather's picture

Love this thread. I'm learning that we all have different perceptions of innovation and management's role in it and it brings to the surface more questions rather than hard answers. How can we refine our organization's definitions of innovation, find alignment on that definition, and move towards facilitating a common view of it? Is that dangerous? Does it imply an equalizing status of the roles within the organization? Would we have to look at our business model and inevitably redefine our vision? As Cathy has mentioned and others have indicated including Frederic, how adaptable are we....really...beyond the brainstorming sessions? What role does a manager play in your organization and what would have to happe in order to permit management to implement real change quickly? What does our ability to adapt have to do with our ability to propose new ideas that challenge existing ones? How fast can we bring our innovations to market? Innovation is possible once we agree what it looks like and we have buy-in from our organization as to how to implement it. Should that have been a question?

santhosh-v-kudva's picture

Most organizations today have a theme around innovation, but expect innovation to happen without any investment (time, money, people). Organizations need to allow employees to follow their instinct (Google has a famous 20% time allotment around this) and to fail repetitively and differently, if we have to have innovation. The challenge is also to protect our innovators when a crisis occurs and give them continuity. This implies a need to continuously define and map the potential value of a innovation project.

It is also important to allow employees to learn and provide opportunities around that, expose them to market requirements (the burning problems of today) and support their first few crazy ideas, so that they can have many more of them.

kerry-oconnor's picture

I somewhat like this challenge, and I really dislike the title. Innovation has become a buzzword, and if you follow the Innovation Management discussion group on LinkedIn, it's a case study in making your head spin. Do we talk about innovation? Or do we do innovation? How fast is the market moving? Can we innovate and be done with it? Will we have a metric that says "we've innovated?" and then we can celebrate? Is innovation the goal? If I buy a license to an open innovation software, will my organization be innovative? Or if we build community, make organizations more human, co-create with employees and customers and possibly buy a license to a tool that will help, but otherwise remember how to be more social in the conduct of business, given the social era that we're in, will we then be on the leading edge of our respective markets?

The "Cultivating 21st Century Capabilities" is a better title. If we develop a set of capabilities geared toward making us individually and organizationally more nimble, inventive, and adaptive, we'll be doing innovative work, instead of just talking about it.

kerry-oconnor's picture

I also had another thought, and since the voting on this one and the Cultivating 21st Century Capabilities is so close, I think it bears mentioning. At the MIXMashup, at least amongst the active tweeters amongst us, the panel on innovation structures and processes was the least popular.

One tweet, retweeted by several of us, read "There's no one way to innovation. Overdesigning a path to innovation is exactly the opposite of what you're trying to achieve."

Two thoughts that I had at the time were:
"Can't help but feel that main goal of an innovation capacity is to guard against conventional wisdom. How depends on org culture."
"Mixed feelings on innovation panel. Context: What kinds of models work for what cultures? Do we risk bureacratizing the process?"

Any innovation-specific challenge should address these elements or risk being folded into hype and conventional wisdom.

mitchell-morrison's picture

One potential build to your innovation challenge: From my experience, increasing innovation capabilities is more about changing behaviors than it is about changing management processes. You need both, but behaviors will beat process all day long. This is a culture thing and something that has to be introduced and reinforced. For example you could introduce the concept of expansionist (thinking big) and reductionist (making decisions) and signal to your organization or team that both of these mindsets are needed to innovate and run a business. There are a number of behaviors that are important to allow innovation to flourish in an organization. To sum it up...I would think about replacing the word, "management process" in the challenge question and ladder it up to something like, "How can we retune the way we think and act so we become more powerful..."

k-sangal's picture

Even in 21 st century, I feel we are treating innovation as an abstract idea. However, it is important to understand here that innovation cannot be taught in class rooms of management schools trying to attract trained faculty members to improve their wordwide rankings.

Nevertheless, we can train our human resouces in these schools to smell innovations around us or atleast zero down on innovators who are present all around us. By doing this,most probably, there could be a spiral impact on the chain of innovators who are struggling to come up in the chain where recognition and compensation can be tasted. We as managers/owners of businesses just need to set benchmarks where innovations and innovators can be further encouraged to attain critical mass to reach the targets more effectively and promptly.

dan-keldsen's picture

Absolutely agree with the premise here. That's why I've been running workshops for 6 years on providing "regular people" (those that aren't specifically titled with innovation, or R&D) to be "Licensed 2 Innovate."

With both permission and guidance, there's a giant world of untapped innovators in the workforce. Innovation coaching and mentoring (both from within and supported from the outside), help tremendously, in enabling those people who have felt excluded from the process, finding that link to how they can participate.

brendan-coram's picture

Great! this could pick up on some current themes around customer development (steve blank) and business model innovation (osterwalder & pigneur) e.g. how can we innovate our business models when it's the business model that's getting in our way?

cathy-downes's picture

I like this idea particularly because I labour in an institution that struggles mightily with innovation and is right on the cusp of a Clayton Christensen Innovator's Dilemma and is doing everything it can to follow the mainstream technology path. One of the issues that is not in your bullet list concerns organizational culture. If there is no cultural DNA in the organization for innovation, for sense-and-respond, for adaptability, for sensing-on-the-periphery, if there is no value placed by leaders on demonstrating by example willingness to step away from even tried and proven approaches to create something new and shed something that is past its sell-by-date.

Also, there is a need to build cultures of experimentation, and most importantly, going back to Sir Ken Robinson's "Out of Our Minds - Learning to be Creative", we need to have a focus on helping people develop the precursor to creativity - imagination. I find so many organizations do everything within their power to dis-incentivise, knock down and isolate imaginative, creative people; throw them a few crumbs and they will be happy is often the best that happens.

The way you seem to be approaching this challenge - if you forgive me for saying so - is very Industrial Age bureaucratic managerial - definitions of innovation, goals, accountability, compensation, metrics. If we take on this one, we need to be thinking at least information age, or to use Daniel Pink's conceptual age - how do we build organizations that are organically innovative? How do we recruit, select, educate, develop people who are as strongly right brain as they are left brain? etc. What learning approaches are needed to continually fuel connective ideas for innovation?

Quite frankly, the ability to innovate continually is going to be the next few decades critical competitive advantage and differentiator. If strategic management drops this ball, it is the route to commodization and termination.

isaiah-mcpeak's picture

This is good because everyone talks about innovation, but it is so often practiced as intuition rather than science/art.

alka-puri's picture

Innovation is about tomorrow, the future of any organization. Hence the 'philosophy of innovation' should be the bedrock on which an organization builds its values, guidelines and operating structures. Only then will innovation drive the organization.

alberto-blanco's picture

Great challenge! In my opinion, innovating innovation implies adopting a culture of failure among organizations. If you think of it, we are obsessed with being right all the time. That is why we stick to the routine, play along, apply "best practices", and fool ourselves with models that "explain" how the world works. Hence, if we truly want to innovate, we need to step into the unknown. Here are some operational questions that drive my curiosity around this potential challenge:

How to set up a culture of failure among organizations?

How to promote, measure, reward/recognize, purposeful failure?

How to remove the culture of fear and our obsession of being right (and play safe) most of the time?

How to shield innovators (i.e. Mark Zuckerberg) against criticism (i.e. Wall Street "experts")?

I hope this comment could spark some ideas around this challenge. However, don't take me too seriously. I might be completely wrong! ;)

jari-torvelainen's picture

Is this also sometimes a make or buy decision?
I have noticed that very few - if any - big companies can succesfully build and maintain strategy based on business innovation over longer period of time. ( Success here defined narrowly as delivery of shareholder value in longer term ). On the other hand - smaller businesses very often struggle hugely while trying to scale their business innovation. And they often end up being bought by bigger companies which then tend to lose the innovation once they start pushing for scale and economic returns in environment where competition tries to outdo them.

greg-stevenson's picture

I like this challenge. I like the derivatives aspect to the question as well. If management systems and processes are acting as barriers to innovation, how do we get innovation of our management systems to stop that from happening? Then of course the 2nd derivative, how do we innovate the innovated management systems so that it occurs faster?

richard-barker's picture

Increasingly, in an era of "open innovation" it's the overall innovation system - often involving several players (customers, suppliers, public sector technology sources, etc) - that needs remodeling. Can we stretch to include this?