(4/4) Developing Innovation Capabilities – The Journey

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This blog is the fourth in a series of snippets from my recent book in Spanish (that translates as): “Innovation 2.0: Why do we forget about the people when we talk about innovation? A practical way to create a culture of innovation.

Some weeks ago, I talked about the non-sense surrounding innovation – the rampant abuse, misuse and overuse of the term. It is gratifying to see that I am not wrong. The May 23rd article from Wall Street Journal, “You call that innovation?” validates and reinforces this observation. Below are a few highlights from the article that is based on a CapGemini Study of 260 Global executives:

  • 4 in 10 have a Chief Innovation Officer
  • Such titles may be mainly “for appearances”
  • Most of them conceded their companies still don’t have a clear innovation strategy to support the role.

Again, the reasons for this ubiquitous problem are explained in my May 2012 blog. There I talked about the fact that innovation is not a tool, it is not invention and it is not luck. “Innovation is a Discipline.” Specifically, I made the case that innovation, like all disciplines, can be: (1) taught, (2) learnt, (3) practiced and (4) mastered.

Fortunately, the journey to master any discipline is the same: It starts with existing KNOWLEDGE, then putting that knowledge into PRACTICE and then through rigor and grit one masters a discipline. So, you master a DISCIPLINE (the field) through DISCIPLINE (desire and determination). When you master any discipline, you create new knowledge and the cycle starts all over again. Hence, expertise and mastery in any discipline is a journey and not a destination.

In this blog, I will comment on the role of Knowledge in the innovation journey. Specifically, we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. There is sufficient existing knowledge that we should first capitalize on.

The Cro-Magnons were recent emigrants to northern and central Europe as compared to the Neanderthals. The Neanderthals’ were much bigger and their physiology was much better suited for the northern European cold. They had acclimatized there for centuries as compared to the recent and smaller in size Cro-Magnon émigrés. And yet, the Cro-Magnons outnumbered, outlasted and eventually wiped out the Neanderthals. How could that have happened?

The Cro-Magnons were better organized and had better hunting tools. Not only did they have better hunting tools, the Cro-Magnons had better art, better clothes and better shelter against the cold. All these innovations were cultural and at the core of the cultural stimulus was language. The Cro-Magnons had a much more evolved language as compared to the Neanderthals.

A common language creates a community. It helps in organizing them, develop and share skills, take care of each other, strengthen as a team, and enables members to defend themselves.

A community is a group of interacting organisms, not just humans, sharing an environment. In humans, this also refers to a group that is organized around common values and social cohesion. At the core of any community is a common language. It is the fundamental basis for the existence of a community. A lingua franca is a language systematically used to communicate between persons not sharing a mother tongue. All disciplines—management, medicine, law—have a lingua franca. So does Innovation. The first step to create a community of innovators is to teach them the lingua franca of innovation – its principles, its frameworks, its concepts and tools.

Once they learn the lingua franca, they will be able to communicate on the same wavelength, act and work together and practice what they have learnt together in the realm of innovation. Then they will start having their own habits and traditions. This will eventually lead to a culture of innovation.

No lingua franca, no culture.

“When I say that I’m not going to witness or permit the change, I’m talking about the thing that’s most important in Apple—the culture of Apple. Am I going to change anything? Of course.” – Apple CEO, Tim Cook, at the D10 conference, 2012

Let me recap an example that I first wrote in my May 2009 blog.

For decades Whirlpool Corp., the No. 1 U.S. appliance maker was an engineering and manufacturing firm fixated on quality and cost. Its products were mostly commodities sold at all large retailers – Sears, Best Buy, etc. In 1999 Whirlpool embarked on a mission to be recognized as being No. 1 in innovation as well. They started by simply enlisting 75 employees from across the firm to brainstorm. The group came up with one hit product, but most ideas were too far-out or insignificant. Like many first-time innovators, people had a difficult time seeing how a more far-reaching idea could turn into an opportunity.

That’s when Whirlpool re-thought its approach. First, every salaried employee was enrolled in a business innovation course. Second, they trained people called I-mentors who were kind of like Six Sigma black belts. They had real jobs, but they also had special training in how to facilitate innovation projects and help people with their ideas. An Intranet portal offered everyone in the firm a common forum for learning principles of innovation, keeping abreast of recent research, and tracking the progress of ideas toward realization. Innovation teams comprised of employees from all levels screened and vetted new ideas. In 2008, Whirlpool had 61,000 employees and nearly 1,100 volunteer I-mentors worldwide who helped facilitate innovation throughout the firm.

Two years into the program Whirlpool had 100 business ideas, 40 concepts in experimentation and 25 products and business ideas in prototype stage. By early 2006, Whirlpool had 100s of ideas in the pipeline, 60 in the prototype stage and 190 being scaled for the market. In 2007 new products stemming from the innovation areas contributed nearly $2.5 billion in worldwide revenue and $4 billion of 2008 $19 billion in revenues.

So, if the senior leaders of the enterprise have the burning desire for the firm to be more innovative then, the goal is very clear. It is to create a “culture of innovation.” And the starting point on this journey is the lingua franca of innovation, i.e., Knowledge.

Unfortunately, I see leaders making several mistakes when it comes to starting this journey or the innovation initiatives that get started within the firm. A few of these mistakes are:

  1. Firstly, they initiate innovation activities for the wrong reasons. Usually, leaders embark on such initiatives in response to either slow growth, intense competition, or a loss of market share. Hence, the expectation is that innovation is a panacea; it is a tool or a quick-fix. As you can see, this leads to all other types of problems – immediate pay back, no patience, wrong definitions of success etc. So, when it is not a “burning desire” to create an innovative culture, you are already starting out with the wrong foot.
  2. Secondly, there is still a rampant awareness problem. Most executives who are in top positions of large enterprises today probably got their MBAs 15 or 20 years ago. Unfortunately, at that time there were no courses in innovation. It is only lately that there are several innovation courses in business schools. Hence most leaders do not recognize innovation as a formal discipline. They have had very little training themselves and do not probably recognize the need for training.
  3. Thirdly, a good percentage of executives believe that innovation cannot be learned.
  4. Fourth is the exact opposite of reason three. Some leaders believe that we humans are all naturally creative and that we don’t need any formal innovation training. But, this group tends to be in the minority.
  5. Even those who do invest in formal innovation training tend to approach it as a formal science and not a social science. The focus here is on R&D, Technology, and NPD processes. The softer humanistic side, which tends to be the harder side, is usually ignored or downplayed.

To summarize this discussion:

  1. If there is a desire to be innovative, then the goal is to create a “culture of innovation.”
  2. The road to mastery in any discipline (field) is time-tested: knowledge + practice + discipline (rigor)
  3. Knowledge: firms should broadly educate their employees about the discipline of innovation – why innovate, links with strategy and role of leadership and culture.
  4. Create a community of innovation experts (not everyone is going to be an expert).

In my next blog I will talk about the “PRACTICE” of innovation. In the meantime, I would love to hear how your firms are approaching innovation and its innovation initiatives.

Cheers!

Jay

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