Managing the Innovation Process

Innovation. We want it. We demand it. Technology, especially information technology, is seen by business leaders as a primary source (often the only source) of innovation, business agility, and even competitive advantage —  and yet we seem to be unable to articulate (or even agree on) something basic: how do you innovate successfully? What is the process? Is there a process?

“Dots” seem to be popular. Steve Jobs famously asserted “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Sir Richard Branson, on the other hand, insists on A-B-C-D:  “Always Be Connecting the Dots.”  Seth Godin, the strategy guru, laments that everybody is taught about “collecting dots”. Almost none of it spent teaching them the skills necessary to connect dots. “The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.”

Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere.

We are also often advised to “think outside the box.” It is said that this derives from a puzzle where you are challenged to connect nine dots using only four connected straight lines — which can only be done by venturing outside the “box” formed by the nine dots. We are back to the dots again…

Perhaps some old-fashioned advice will be more helpful. Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, the motion picture and the electric light bulb; he also invented the first industrial research laboratory — a process for innovation. This is more like it!

Let us have a look at the principles that Edison employed (and abused) in managing the process of invention:

Embrace discontent . Dissatisfaction with the status quo is often the symptom of innovation in gestation. That young lady in Claims who is constantly exclaiming about the inefficiency of the process? Have a nice long conversation with her. You will discover that she has some very practical thoughts on how to improve the claims processes. “…discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure.”

Insist on perseverance. We live in a complex world. There are no easy answers. We know that there are plenty of ideas — the problem is to make them reality. That takes work, a lot of it.  “None of my inventions came by accident…I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Give permission to fail. Business and society admires success and abhors failure. We all know the success stories, but how many of us can enumerate the (many) failures of Steve Jobs? If we want innovation, we have to give the team permission to fail.  “During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a ‘discovery’. All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple. I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable. Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved. This was the only possible way for me to work out the problem.

Give permission to break rules.  If you are going to constrain the innovative process with rules (written or unwritten) then you are handicapping your abilities right from the start. This does not mean that “anything goes.” Rather, it means that there are no holy cows, no sacred ground. We have to be able to question (and be discontented with) everything. “Hell, there are no rules here — we’re trying to accomplish something.”

Reward Honestly. No, not ‘reward honesty’, although that is good too. If you promise a reward, be specific. If you reward innovation, keep your promise to the letter.  Another great inventor, Nikolai Tesla, was employed by Thomas Edison when he proposed to substantially improve Edison’s direct current generators.  “There’s fifty thousand dollars in it for you—if you can do it.” He did, but Edison rewarded him with only a pay rise of $10 per week. Tesla promptly resigned and went on to become a leading light in introducing alternating current electricity, eventually totally replacing Edison’s direct current electrical systems.

Give permission to think. As a young programmer, my boss found me sitting at my desk, staring out of the window. I was thinking through a particularly complex algorithm, and struggling a bit, to be honest. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I am thinking,” I relied, somewhat irritated at having my concentration broken. “I don’t pay you to think,” he said. “I pay you to write code, in pencil, on those sheets in front of you. I pay you to work, not think.” Thinking is work, and innovative thinking is very hard work. Recognize that. “There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.”

And lastly, as Steve Jobs would say: “One more thing.” A recent study published in Harvard Business Review (December 2014) found that two of the United States excelled in innovation. It’s easy to guess one of them: California. The other? Minnesota. What they have in common? Restricting the enforcement of non-compete agreements. Think about it. What you fear to lose on the swings, you will more than gain on the roundabouts. Yes, your employees may take some good ideas to a competitor. But you will also get some good ideas from employees joining you — and if you are better at bringing those ideas to reality, you will be the winner in the game of give and take.

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