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Great Idea! Now What?

April 12, 2011
The 'other side of innovation' proves challenging for even the best companies.

Americans love their heroes, idealized warriors ranging from Superman and the Lone Ranger to Rambo and Luke Skywalker. But that image of the single hero fighting battles on his own is problematic when it comes to promoting successful innovations in companies, says Chris Trimble.

"Because of that aspect of American culture, we tend to subscribe to an innovation myth, wherein there is one brilliant and inspired visionary who makes innovation happen by fighting the system, the system being the bureaucracy in a big company," he says. "Somehow, this person overcomes all the red tape that is thrown in front of him or her and wins despite it all. This is just a nutty way to think about innovation. Innovation is much more about teams, special kinds of teams, than it is about individual action."

For more than a decade, Trimble and his partner at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, Vijay Govindarajan, have been studying how companies move innovation from the idea to execution. What they found is that companies focus too much on the front end of innovation -- coming up with the brilliant new idea -- and fail to understand how difficult it is to actually bring that idea to fruition. That constitutes The Other Side of Innovation, the title of their book based on extensive case studies of innovation efforts in dozens of companies.

A fundamental premise of the book is that each innovation initiative requires a special kind of team and a specific plan. Each project team actually has two components, a dedicated team that works exclusively on the initiative and the shared staff who work on the innovation project part time while maintaining ongoing operations. Companies must deal with the reality, says Trimble, that "innovation is always in conflict with ongoing operations. Managing innovation is very much a challenge of navigating those conflicts productively. It's tough to do."

In evaluating an innovation project's progress, Govindarajan and Trimble emphasize the need for "disciplined experimentation." They state that "all innovation initiatives, regardless of size, duration or purpose, are projects with uncertain outcomes. They are experiments." Companies must guard against pressures for results that are comfortable and convenient rather than analytical and dispassionate.

In The Other Side of Innovation, Govindarajan and Trimble urge companies to be careful how the dedicated team is labeled, warning against calling it the "Innovation Team" or some similar sobriquet. "Once you get beyond innovations that are small enough to be handled by a small team in their spare time or that are this year's version of last year's product, you inevitably have to create a dedicated team," says Trimble. "As soon as you do that, you create all kinds of emotions and anxieties and fears." Employees will worry over whether they want to be included on the team or not, and often envy a team that is seen as having some special status.

"The key of success is to create a healthy and vibrant partnership with the rest of the company," Trimble told IndustryWeek. "Too often, that team is seen as the rebels, the contrarians, the people that are fighting the system. When I see that, I know an initiative is in trouble."

Trimble also calls for companies to aim their sights higher when it comes to social responsibility. "We've defined social responsibility as what you are doing when you are not trying to make a profit," he says. "It means stuff that is not connected to the business, for the most part. I think social responsibility should be about emphasizing some kinds of profits over others. Emphasizing profits that are derived from innovations that change the world are something that we should value a great deal more than profits that result from being the big guy in the industry beating up on the little guys or for finding a way to work around regulations. There are easy ways to make a profit and there are harder ways, and the harder ways make a difference and we should value them more."

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