Defining Responsibility for Innovation

Defining Responsibility of InnovationMany of you will have heard or read the following statement – “innovation is everyone’s responsibility”. It’s often well meaning, intended to invite participation from all the creative minds in the company. However, it’s wrong.

Large, complex organizations often struggle with the efficient delivery of innovation. Their size and structure can make the flow of projects slow and cumbersome. Competing politics and “turf wars” inhibit innovation probably more than other parts of the business. Even in smaller companies at the other end of the organization spectrum, the implementation of innovation can be disorganized and even chaotic.

So how should companies approach this problem? First of all, with a paradox – the responsibility for innovation should be clear, but the innovation professionals should have a lot of freedom to operate.

Responsibility for innovation is primarily about the decisions that need to be made and when. The first, and potentially most important, is the structure and organization of innovation. Questions that should be asked here relate to resource, reporting and networking. There should be a clear match to the organizational design you already have, for example whether it is devolved or centralized.

There’s often a temptation to define everything by structure and job descriptions, forgetting how most companies really work – networking and personal contact. Efficient structures, organograms and job specs are the easy part, whether you do it yourself or take consultancy advice. The real differentiator you have versus your competitors is your people. They are the ones who will define and drive innovation projects. It’s their creativity and initiative that will distinguish your products and services from the rest.

Therefore it’s crucial to ensure that the key parts of the company are networking and collaborating strongly. Self-directed teams are one option you can take to drive innovation forward. They link departmental silos, have clear mandates for operation, and are expected to network for support and decisions rather than constantly refer back to the operating manual.

You will need to define who is responsible for the creative part of producing ideas, whether that is de novo, using external or internal crowdsourcing, or whatever works for you. A key part of this is responsibility for collation, assessment and prioritization.

Next, you are likely to have some sort of innovation process, like Stage/Gate. Who makes the decisions to move forward at each gate? Who really needs to give inputs? Who writes the gate papers? Do people have the responsibility to take certain decisions as the project progresses rather than having to refer everything to the gate committee? Are people constantly asking for approval (hopefully not)?

Within each project, there will be people accountable for delivery and people responsible for doing the work. A common format for defining roles within projects is RACI – Responsibility (doing the work), Accountability (for delivery), Consult and Inform. There is a big health warning on RACI – you can spend an awful lot of time defining who to consult and inform, then put the detailed charts into a drawer and never look at them again. Concentrate on what is really important.

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Just as in investment, the decisions to be made around the innovation project portfolio are probably the most important ones. They should be made at the top management level of the company. Any lower and it says that innovation is not a key priority, and may indeed be an abdication of leadership. Everyone working on innovation should know that the leadership buys in to what they are doing, and the priority ascribed to it.

Innovation projects in large companies always face challenges when encountering a handover at an interface. Whether that is Research to Product Development, or then on to Manufacturing, it’s a challenge. Multi-functional self-directed teams ease this handover, as they are more likely to anticipate issues faced by the receiving department earlier in the project.

Devolving responsibility is not abdicating it. You don’t need to lock yourself away, then hope and pray that things are going well while the self-directed teams get on with the job. There should be sufficient interaction and networking to enable knowledge of progress without onerous reporting requirements.

People generally know what makes sense and what doesn’t. So don’t inhibit them by having overly complex Stage/Gate systems and detailed RACI descriptions that mean they spend more time reading manuals and writing gate papers rather than getting on with projects. Defining responsibility equates with maintaining control, whether implicitly or explicitly. Beware of what you control, otherwise you will stifle your innovation teams and erode the competitive edge of what you produce.

Is there a contradiction here with the successful approach taken by, for example, Steve Jobs at Apple, where even the tiniest detail apparently needed Jobs’ approval? Not necessarily, as long as the ideas and products rule rather than hierarchy. You need to know what senior managers are passionate about, and if it’s the performance of the product you should be thankful.

I believe that companies work best with a clear framework of leadership and responsibility within which individuals and teams have a high degree of freedom to experiment, and to deliver their projects using initiative and creativity. So here’s the paradox again; you need to define responsibility clearly without paralyzing the organization and trying to run it “by the book”. Give the responsibility for innovation to your people, and set them free to deliver it.


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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

Kevin McFarthing




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