Innovation is a Capability NOT an Activity

Innovation is a Capability NOT an ActivityI get this fairly regularly, a senior executive who is in somewhat dire straits. Their firms, once leaders in their industries, neglected R&D, postponed interesting new products and services and failed to innovate consistently. Now, they are no longer the lead dog, and are unhappy with the view from behind.

To begin to remedy three to five years of focusing on efficiency, cost-cutting, right-sizing and ignoring innovation,they often want to conduct a week-long workshop to generate disruptive new ideas. You can almost imagine where this is going….

My first question when I get this request is: OK, once the idea generation event is over, what next? Since I know most organizations don’t have an organized innovation process or workflow, or a deep bench of people and resources to throw at such a significant problem, I know the likely outcome is a few people assigned part-time to evaluate and select an idea to develop. They’ll lack training and skills, since little or no innovation has been done recently. They’ll lack frameworks for evaluating and selecting ideas, because no one has established what the long term strategies are and what should be emphasized. They’ll be pulled back into their day jobs constantly, since the fiscal quarter is far more important than achievement in a year or more. And, ultimately, without a lot of commitment, time, resources and effort, they’ll likely generate at best an incremental idea that management half-heartedly accepts and which fizzles in the marketplace.

Is this an “innovation” failure? No, because innovation wasn’t implemented. It is a strategic failure, a failure of focus, a failure of resources and a failure of expectations. Innovation isn’t a parlor trick or a time machine. It is not going to make up in one week for three or four years of neglected innovation, and can’t overcome a lack of skills or training, a lack of resources and a lack of focus. If it were as simple as a one week exercise to create a compelling new product or service, then we’d see lots of them. What people forget about even good innovators like Jobs at Apple is that it took four or five years for Apple to create the iPod. None of their innovations were developed overnight, but over a long time, based on a consistent vision, with lots of resources. Apple intentionally cut a lot of other products to clear the decks for the iPod and other “i” products, rather than force the nascent products to compete with existing products which had their own demands.

Innovation is not a short-term activity, but a long term capability. Farming may provide an excellent analogy. I come from farming stock, and I can assure you that no farmer would wait until July to plant crops, hoping to harvest them in a week or two. No, he or she would tend the land, working year round to till the soil, break up the ground, plant the seed when the time is right, weeding, fertilizing and caring for the tender young plants. When adversity in the face of cold, fire, hail, insects arise, the farmer confronts the issues immediately. He works, understanding the commitment and timeframes of his plants and the vicissitudes of nature – rain, snow, clouds, sun, drought, wind. He harvests when the plants are ready, on the agricultural time scales, not perhaps what he wants, but what nature gives. You cannot toss seeds in an unprepared field and expect to harvest valuable crops from that same neglected field a week or even a month later. Likewise, you can’t extract good ideas from an unprepared organization, and even if you could, the skills, capabilities, methods and processes aren’t established, and the ideas face tremendous headwinds but have few protectors and even fewer accelerators.

Let me say it again. Innovation is a capability developed and nurtured over time, not a once and done activity. If you want a rabbit from a hat, buy a magician’s kit. If you want real, powerful innovation to drive new ideas that create value and differentiation, be prepared to get your hands dirty, till the soil, pull the weeds and spend the time necessary to harvest the crop of ideas. There are no easy innovation fixes to long neglected strategic problems.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

Jeffrey Phillips




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