Seven Managers Struggling With Innovation

The fuzzy front end of innovation confronts you with a lot of questions. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’ I try to solve them with the FORTH innovation method

The reason why a lot of managers struggle with innovation is because they are too far removed from the commercial reality. Neal Thornberry, professor of Management at the American Babson College, explains it as follows:

Marketing presentations take the place of real opportunity analysis. They don’t know if they can make it, if anybody will buy it, for how long, at what price and how they will defend it against people trying to steal their market.

Managers struggle with innovation on all levels and in different roles. I will introduce you to seven managers, all wearing a different ‘hat’ explaining, anecdotally, their view on innovation in practice. I am curious as to which hat fits you.

1. The despondent product manager

‘Every problem in my organisation which concerns my product group ends up on my desk.

I feel like a rag with a thousand-and-one uses. I hardly have time to pay attention to innovation, and I am happy if I can make time free to accompany the account manager on a visit to a client. I get ideas for new products while jogging during the weekend. In the beginning, I found the idea of innovation difficult as I had no experience and there is no practical training available. So, how do I discover a ‘hole’ in the market and what would be a good proposition? I am learning more about innovation in practice through trial and error. What really gets me down is the two-sided way in which my bosses approach me.  On the one hand they motivate me to develop new products quickly, while on the other hand, every manager above me – right up to the general manager – must have their say about the new concept I present.  This causes the product to be adapted endlessly whereby the process takes forever. Enough to make me 100% despondent.’

2.  The pragmatic marketing manager

‘We are in a very competitive market, therefore innovation has top priority. I motivate the product managers and support and coach them during our bilateral meetings once a fortnight.  Unfortunately, the current turnover is below the budget, which puts enormous pressure on the sales department as well as my marketers. Furthermore, extra promotions and product variants which have to be developed quickly, always take preference before serious product innovation. In addition, as a result of the disappointing turnover, I had to turn in a part of my marketing budget, and I cannot save on the marketing support of the current ‘cash-cows’, as that would be disastrous. As a result I do not have money available to enter the market with a new product. But, product innovation is still the highest priority.’

3.  The stoic R&D specialist

‘I find real innovation great as I can completely emerge myself in it.  I have many ideas but at the moment my desk in the R&D lab, is covered with four projects for small modifications to products and six projects regarding cutback of the production process for the production managers and engineers with which I am also involved.  Not to mention the paperwork.  As I said I have many brilliant ideas, but I keep them to myself. Many marketers are not open to these ideas as they are more concerned with the theory. I now have the fourth marketer in eight years and they all want to do market research first in order to ask the customer what they want. But, customers do not know what they want, we have to create it for them. However, marketers only realise this after two years……….’

4.  The procedural R&D manager

‘Many departments, such as Engineering, Production, Purchasing and also Marketing, rely on the capacity of the R&D.  Every marketer wants you to concentrate 100% on their product. If you allow them to, they will constantly make everybody crazy with their new ideas.  That’s the reason why we have implemented a very good process for innovation, the Stage-Gate process.  In this way we can choose which project idea will become an official R&D project and which ones not.  Furthermore, we follow exactly which project idea is in which phase of development.  Preceding these five steps there is a go/no-go moment for the management team, and if it is not a project, then my people may not work on it. In this way we keep control of everything.’

5.  The down to earth Sales Manager

‘Simply put, I am all for the business of today and it keeps me very busy.  Furthermore, I expect Marketing and R&D to come up with new products on time, so that my account managers can go to the customers with a good story. For the moment, I have my hands full with trying to reach the target regarding our turnover for this term. Should a marketer come to me with a beautiful new introduction story and research results, then I always ask for some time to think. At home I then test the idea with my wife to see if she understands exactly what it is meant for. If she doesn’t understand it immediately then the customers will not either, and then I do not pursue the idea. It’s as simple as that.’

6.  The sound Production Director

‘Everybody is talking about innovation. However, looking back over the past ten years, I dare say that of the fifty new product introductions we had, maybe only five were successful. When looking at the production volume, then these products make up only 10% of the volume, but nobody looks back to calculate what these introductions cost. A real fortune! Nobody even asks how much extra turnover it would have earned if, with this money, we had supported the current products more, especially through advertising.  I believe marketing and innovation is a playground for young academics without experience who wants to dictate to me which ridiculous new ideas I have to consider in my factory.’

7.  The divided general manager

‘With regards to innovation I have ”zwei Seelen in meiner Brust” (‘two souls in my chest’)’, as the Germans describe it so well.  On the one hand we have a clear focus on the market, a professional innovation process and great people working in R&D and Marketing, but on the other hand I am not yet satisfied with its effectiveness. There are too few really innovative products flowing forth from the innovation pipeline. At one moment there is simply a lack of good ideas and at the next I receive introduction plans for ‘still unfinished products’ which nobody is really waiting for.’

Indeed, I have portrayed these managers as ‘characters’, but I hope that it brought a smile to your face as well as a flicker of recognition. And remember, if you change your day-to-day behaviour the other six managers will probably change too. Good Luck!

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Gijs van WulfenGijs van Wulfen leads ideation processes and is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. He is the author of Creating Innovative Products & Services, published by Gower.

Gijs van Wulfen




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