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Leader, Innovate Thyself

Sept. 3, 2019
Attacking the symptoms of slow innovation—rather than addressing the root causes—ultimately does more harm than good.

The following is Part Two of an excerpt from the forthcoming book, High Velocity Innovation: How to Get Your Best Ideas to Market Faster (Career Press: October 2019).

Recently, I described the things company leaders do to accelerate innovation that actually slow it down—from isolating R&D from operations, bringing in people from outside the company to lead innovation, to embracing a startup culture for their innovation team.

These methods share three faulty assumptions about innovation, and none of them address the real reasons why innovation programs take too long and deliver disappointing results. These assumptions are compelling because they are all partially true. But they only attack the symptoms of slow innovation—not the root causes—and ultimately do more harm than good.

Faulty Assumption #1: The normal corporate culture and many employees get in the way of innovation.

This is the driving assumption that says innovation teams need protection, and it’s salient because it’s partly true. Most corporate environments don’t support innovation, and most people in any given company don’t have the burning desire to be innovative. But the solution isn’t found when companies build walls around small teams of outsiders—which takes away accountability for meeting corporate norms—and then expect magic to happen.

But it is easier than admitting that the real cause is lack of leadership pull for innovation. When the need for innovation becomes obvious because the company is falling behind, it’s easier for leaders to seek solutions outside the company than rekindle the spirit of innovation inside the company. But that accelerates the decline of the core business, with no guarantees that outside innovation can be successfully integrated back inside.

The truth behind the myth is that your teams won’t think of themselves as innovators if they don’t believe they can innovate or don’t think it’s part of their jobs. If you complain, “We’re not innovative” or “We’re not creative” within hearing distance of your teams, you just created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A subset of your employee base is less comfortable with change and uncertainty. You don’t want these people to be assigned to work on innovation all the time. But it is reasonable to expect that they contribute to innovation within their areas of expertise, and that when they do, they will be recognized and rewarded.

Companies that achieve High Velocity Innovation seek to rekindle the spark of entrepreneurship inside everyone, at least to some degree.

They generate pull for innovation with a corporate strategy and cascading objectives that place responsibility for innovation within every team.

Then they build a culture of high accountability to ensure that innovationremains a top priority even when leaders’ instincts tell them thecurrent business takes precedence.

Faulty Assumption #2: Leaders have to build walls around innovators to protect them (from their leaders).

Another reason why these ineffective methods are so intuitive is because leaders following corporate norms will kill innovations to protect the current business, through neglect if not through sabotage. This is a real concern and a pattern that I’ve seen over and over again.

When a production line goes down for the company’s cash cow, everyone jumps in to fix it. When a major customer has a need, the company will do its utmost to fulfill that need, or else a competitor will. This means that innovation programs are repeatedly starved for resources as people and money get redeployed to shore up the current business.

Innovation programs need to be protected from this, but not with walls. Instead, high accountability for delivering innovation needs to be built into the organizational design with strategy, team structures, metrics, performance goals, and budgets that provide resources for innovation.

These elements generate a greater ability to stay the course on innovations even when the current business is screaming for resources. Unless the company’s survival is at stake, the innovation programs continue. Even then, innovative thinking can make the difference between prosperity and bankruptcy.

Innovations, or at least the ones worth more than just a “go do it” decision, operate on a longer timeline than incremental product development or continuous improvement. It takes time for an innovation to prove itself, and the corporate incentives system must account for that.

Companies achieve high velocity by aligning leadership on the need for innovation, and ensuring that intrinsic and extrinsic incentives line up with the need to deliver innovations. Executives need to be held accountable for delivering innovation in a way that’s appropriate for their responsibilities, and anything that rewards sabotage or neglect must be removed.

Faulty Assumption #3: Teams need to run innovation programs differently.

It is true that innovation programs, especially those that require new business models or scientific breakthroughs, can take a long time to mature, and some of this timing is unpredictable. It’s much easier to predict how long it will take to do something and what the results will be if only one or two elements are new to the company. The management methods used for innovation programs need to accommodate such uncertainty.

That doesn’t mean an innovation team should be allowed to make its own rules or refuse to play by any rules. There is no advantage for the innovation team, and it tells everyone else to turn off their innovation engines. Instead, teams need adaptations of the existing rules that preserve the company’s language and frameworks while providing flexibility where innovation teams need it. That way, innovation programs will be easier to move through execution, which will require cross-functional collaboration.

Innovation teams are good places to conduct experiments with new ways of working, and the results of their experiments will be illuminating for the whole company. If they experiment with sit/stand desks and get better results, chances are that other teams will benefit when they make these changes. This sends the message that innovation teams are sources for good ideas that the entire company can leverage.

Katherine Radeka is the founder and executive director of the Rapid Learning Cycles Institute, and supports a growing global community of innovators who are using High Velocity Innovation to get their best ideas to market faster. She has worked with companies on six continents, in industries from aerospace to medical devices pharmaceuticals to consumer electronics and alternative energy. Radeka began her focus on innovation while working as a software development manager for the E-Services Factory at HP Labs.

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