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Jeffrey Phillips


Innovation: Out of the File Cabinet, Onto the Agenda

Build on knowledge and skills already developed

Published: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 - 15:44

Not long ago a new client asked our team to lead an innovation project to create a product. As always with a new client, we did a quick survey. It’s important to understand what the client knows and has attempted in the name of innovation.

In this case the client had adopted another consulting firm’s innovation methodology. In fact, the client brought out a binder full of information for a step-by-step innovation process. From the look of things, it was relatively straightforward and complete.

Every consulting firm has its own ways of doing things, but at the heart of the matter, innovation is always about:
• Defining challenges
• Understanding future market needs and conditions
• Gathering customer insight on unmet needs or jobs to be done
• Generating solutions

That’s the basic front end. No matter how you spin it or package it, all innovation programs have some elements of these steps.

Anyway, back to the client. They presented sample deliverables and a sample work plan. I began to wonder: What do they need us for? All the step-by-step instructions, all the information necessary to innovate, was there.

“Have you adopted this methodology?” I asked.

The answer, as you might have guessed, was a sheepish, “No.” The other consulting firm had built the process for them, given them training on the process, and the client had agreed to “take it from there.” A year later, no innovation had been completed because no one was there to reinforce the innovation process; too many other priorities had sprung up to compete with innovation, and it seemed a bit unusual and risky.

Innovation in the file cabinet

This situation occurs quite frequently. From an innovation methodology or process point of view, few companies are truly “green fields.” Most have heard of innovation, many have purchased books or sent people to innovation training, and a fair number have partnered with one or more innovation consulting firms. Yet far too often when we do our initial reconnaissance, all we find are old methodologies that reside in a binder somewhere in a file cabinet. Do these people have innovation processes or methodologies? Sure, if what’s buried in the file cabinet counts. No one wants to appear unprepared, but many simply haven’t implemented what they have.

Why would firms pay for innovation training, advice, and methodology and then shelve all the knowledge? There are a number of reasons, but the most important ones have to do with priorities and risk. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1989), Stephen Covey introduced the idea that managers spend time on things that are urgent or important. Innovation falls in the important category. It’s important that a company create new products or develop a new business model. Most day-to-day operations fall in the urgent category. It’s urgent that we respond to a competitive move or that new piece of legislation. As Covey noted, the urgent always beats the important.

General aspiration or firm commitment

Here’s what you need to answer if you hope for innovation at any level of the company: Is innovation a general aspiration or a firm commitment? Aspirations are important, but often there’s talk about change without commitment to make the change a reality. Innovation requires a firm commitment from senior executives willing to change the status quo and provide resources for interesting challenges immediately. Firm commitments are when innovation projects get top billing, when the best people clamor to join those projects, and when they are adequately resourced and regularly assessed to gauge achievement.

You must quickly assess each innovation request to see if there can be firm commitment. There are a few things to consider. First is the authority level of the person who calls for innovation. Has that person shown commitment to previous projects? CEOs demanding innovation are a dime a dozen. They want innovation but don’t follow up.

Executives who demand innovation and strip their best people from other activities or redirect resources and funding to innovation create a much clearer picture. Defining a clear scope for an innovation project is a must. Rather than simply ask for “innovation,” people with true commitment ask for a new solution that’s far better than what’s on the market for a specific set of customers. Innovation without scope is like boiling the ocean.

Finally, you’ll get a sense of the depth of commitment by the way activities are measured. If no one bothers to understand how the innovation project is proceeding, if there aren’t frequent assessments of the effort, then you know that the effort isn’t serious.

The reason so much innovation methodology, process, and knowledge ends up in file cabinets is because of exceptionally little follow through on the part of executives. These individuals want innovation but don’t want to disrupt the status quo. They perceive innovation as aspirational rather than a firm commitment. And when that signal is received by a designated innovation team, the materials go back on the shelf to wait for another day when the commitment is higher.

Out of the file cabinet

If you have a method or process, implement it, learn it, and perfect it by doing innovation. It will be difficult and messy at first, but like any human endeavor, you’ll get better with more practice. Parking the information in a file cabinet does nothing for anyone. It’s a waste of time and develops internal cynicism when people know they’ve received training or been introduced to a process they aren’t encouraged to use.

This raises the final question: Should corporate teams even try to innovate internally, or should they simply rely on external consultants to help generate ideas, or acquire other technologies or companies? The simple answer is that doing innovation well is difficult. Innovation can be outsourced, but transitioning new products and services into the existing corporation can be difficult. It’s always better for a firm to build innovation capabilities, even if most of the work is outsourced, because when ideas originate internally, there’s a practical transition path to new products and services, which can help external ideas and products as well.

Getting innovation knowledge and expertise out of the file cabinet and into everyday activities is important. For long-term success, build on investments you already have or knowledge and skills already developed.

First published Jan. 18, 2016, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).