Managing Homeless Ideas

Alessandro Di Fiore in his HBR Article Getting Crazy Ideas off the Ground primarily sites two examples of corporate funds at P&G and Samsung Electronics that fund the ideas that have no clear owners and that are not coming out of any systemic pipeline but appear randomly as and when they happen to someone in the system. Since both the examples mentioned are working and working successfully, there must be something very right they must be doing. It would have been interesting is the author had sites examples of the successful innovations that came out of these innovations, and the kind of non-financial resources that were committed to this.  Was there anything done to ensure that there are ideas that come into this bucket, because in general people just do not get up and get ideas.

Having said that organizations do need to have a trap to capture the ideas that may be too radical or crazy as the article says, or ideas that do not fall in any category or have no probability to come through systemic pipeline.

 

Innovation in Global Times

Global geographic spread of the companies is the standard reality as much as the Innovation is. Traditionally companies tend to have their Innovation teams co-located in one location even when teams are from different backgrounds.  In the Strategy & Business Article Overcoming the Global Trade off  authors discuss how to not only manage innovations in teams spread across locations but also leverage the same for Innovation projects.

They propose three things to ensure that teams across locations can innovate together. I like their first suggestion of limiting the number of locations across which your teams are located. This means while it is more than one location, it need not be every location. You carefully choose the functions / skills / knowledge base required and choose people in those locations. The second suggestion that technology should be leveraged by the teams to create a culture of co-location. This, I think is a default need for organizations that are dispersed across location, irrespective of the kind of work to be done, and most organizations have the infrastructure in place for this. Their third point says that dispersed teams need more project management and senior management bandwidth, something I think is again applicable to all functions that are performed by global teams. Yes,, when you involve external entities be it people or organizations, that is when you need to have very well defined problem, systems, processes and infrastructure to handle the new flow of ideas.

Match Innovation to Desired Outcome

Vijay Govindarajan and Mark Sebell in their HBR article Match Your Innovation Process to the results you want very precisely tell you when you should use top down and when you should use bottom up approach for Innovation in your organization.

Ideally you should have both going on in parallel, bottom up for incremental innovations, and top-down to find that magic wand that can change the fortunes of your company.

There is a need to understand that these approaches complement each other and complete the spectrum of Innovation in  your organization, and they are not mutually exclusive or a matter of choice for the organization. It is possible that at a given point in time for the given situation within the company or in the ecosystem you may choose one over the other, but in the longer run you need to have both running in parallel and giving you a constant supply of ammunition to aim for larger top line while all the time improving ways to strengthen bottom line.

If you are asking this vs that question, that means you have not really understood the purpose of both the approaches.

 

Managing Global Innovations

Keeley Wilson & Yves L. Doz  in their HBR article 10 Rules for Managing Global Innovation list down 10 things that you need to take care of when your innovation initiatives or programs are expected to be delivered by your teams spread across the globe.

Sure, managing any project with teams spread across geographies is a challenge, as you manage across time zones, cultures and knowledge bases. Authors of the article focus a lot on the project management aspect of the challenge, which I think is very similar to any project that is executed globally. Challenges are similar and so are the solutions. In my opinion, what is important is point 6 in the paper, that is define your Innovation as crisply as possible. Now this is a conundrum, given the nature of Innovation, you can never define the innovation project precisely but at the same time defining it as tightly as possible is what will keep the confusions and iterations to a minimum. This is where the innovation champions need to balance the definition and the independence.

I also liked the point of starting small, their first point. It creates a great learning path for doing bigger things while it build synergies and establishes processes across geographies. I am a great believer of starting small and building on the success and the learnings. Similarly identifying a lead site can be helpful, but I guess it will always turn out to be the site where the lead is based. Limiting number of contractors is good as it limits the no of entities involved but it depends on what kind of project you are doing and what the consultant is bringing to table. I totally agree with bond beyond the ICT infrastructure.

I do not agree with bringing in the standard quality processes in the Innovation projects as I think they make the project management heavy and reporting heavy. People spend more time on telling what they are doing or what they intend to do rather than putting all their energies into doing what is required.

A good read.

Launch before Release

Tom Hulme of IDEO talks about launching the product or service as idea before the actual release of it in the market. In the software parlance it would saying launch your product in beta state or may be even Alpha state when it is still an idea.

He talks about a simple 3 step process: Skip the focus group, take the idea / product to the real users and take their feedback

Pros:

  • You get the pulse of the real customers before you invest too much.
  • Know the real target group for the product based on the response
  • Customers get to participate in building up the product / service

Cons

  • Ideas are there in the open and can be picked up by potential competition
  • Launching work-in-progress products can lead to legal and operational issues
  • If the idea is rejected before it is perceived correctly by the public, you may not get the second chance

 

Like everything else, I think this approach can be used for certain type of products and may be for some range of services. I would say may be for absolutely new ideas that have no precedents and you may wonder if it would be accepted at all, or products where you roughly know the idea but may want to fine tune it based on the customer feedback and their experience. Universally applying this would lead to more chaos than what can be handled by most entrepreneurs.

Bring the focus back on the customer

My friend Arun Kottolli in his blog post Improving Innovation with Increased Customer Awareness hits the nail on why so many innovations are failing today. This also links to what we addressed in the last post if you know what business are you in.

Arun quotes quite a few examples from technology space where innovations have happened but have failed to succeed, and given the rate at which they are failing it makes sense to look at the causes for it.

Technology innovations have a tendency to forget the customer. Sometimes that works when you come out with an ahead of curve product that may be beyond the expectation of most customers or consumers, but this happens once in a blue moon and it happens when your product really a true innovation and addresses a unique customer need. Most incremental innovation would fail if they do not differentiate themselves uniquely or do not provide enough reason to the customer to ditch the established players and go for your product. Price advantage works to an extent, but fails after a point.

I liked his point of financial accounting innovation, which is nothing but manipulating the numbers to show innovation. This aspect of Innovation needs to be studied and shared.

Managing Innovation Portfolio

Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff in their HBR Article Managing Your Innovation Portfolio say that innovation portfolio should look at a 2 X2 matrix defined by the core of the organization and market  it caters to. The further you are going from the core and the market, the more investment you need in the innovation, more strategy you need in the intended innovation.

I think this is an interesting way to know your current innovation portfolio, and also to plan one for the coming years. It classifies innovations as Core, Adjacent & Transformational depending on how far they are from your existing core and existing markets. Each of these will need a different strategy to manage and each of them will give a different kind of return. You can do incremental innovations in your core, some brave ones in adjacent but real radical ones will be in transformational.

The classification may tell you to see these three as mutually exclusive but they are absolutely not. At any point in time an organization must work on all three of them simultaneously to extract the most of its core and to be able to expand its core. While the first category drives efficiencies and productivities the last one helps create paradigm shifts.

So check how are you doing on these three categories and where you need to focus your energies on?

Current Innovation Practices

My friend Dr Vinay Dabholkar talks about the Current practices being followed for Innovation in his blog post. Vinay is somone I really respect for his knowledge and his openness to hear the contrary views. In fact he sometimes seeks those views to validate or fine tune his own.
This what I think of his views in this particular post:
  • You need to be very clear of the objective of the innovation initiative in the organization: Is it to make people participate? Is it to get some focussed results / ideas that organization can use? Is it to prepare ground for the future innovations? It is t create a culture of Innovation? While you may say all of them, but I think you need to choose the focus.
  • A lot of organizations that I worked or interacted with were good at creating buzz and getting people to give ideas. I found that they were sitting of thousands of ideas, most of which were irrelevant. No organization has a process, resources or bandwidth to do justified evaluation of all these ideas. And if you think of the softer part of the process, it is more harmful to take an idea and not logically conclude it than not taking an idea at all.
  • A big gap that I see is the enabling gap – people are asked to give ideas, without being enabled to do so. They are not made to think ideas that are relevant to business, not trained on how to present your ideas, how to do business evaluation of their own ideas. Most people, specially in the IT industry need to be trained on business thinking, as being technocrats it is not required to do so in their regular jobs. Addressing these issues is a part of creating a nurturing environment where if I have an idea, there are systems, processes and resources available to me to take it to a level where organization can actually use it.

Innovation is a process…

Jim Stikeleather in this Managementexchange article argues that Innovation is a process. He says it is no longer a stretch goal that you give to employees, it has to be built in their day to day work. They do not have to stop after an Aha moment and get back to routine work, but have to move on to work on creating the next Aha moment.


Incorporating the Innovation goals within the operational goals of an organization is a challenge that not many organizations have explored. It is not going to be easy, specially for those who do it the first time, but it would be rewarding. It may take a few iterations to get it right, but eventually this is what will ensure that there is sustained effort going into innovation across the organization. 

Spending time with the customer

MIX carries an article on the management trainee training program of Hindustan Unilever Ltd in India. As a part of this program, trainees spend substantial time in the rural India, participating in social programs like teaching in schools, understanding the ultimate customer and bringing out new ideas for the business.
Apart from the lessons mentioned in the article, I think the biggest advantage of these programs is the understanding that the company’s people get about the business they are in, the impact their products have on people and society, the gaps that exists, the ethos that are relevant for the local market. I think, this should not be once in a lifetime activity for the management teams, this should be repeated at regular intervals, at least once in 4 years so that the management thought process remains in tune with the customer environment. 
I think the article gives too much importance to the various lists published by various publications. To my mind they are completely irrelevant. Publications need them to keep themselves in circulations. Organizations should make being in them their aim, although a lot of them have dedicated teams to work towards it. Your organization performance is not dependent on these lists.