Making Time for Innovation

Making Time for InnovationA very good friend of mine works for a large, global company with multiple locations around the world, many of which are run as “hot desks”. He is in a position of responsibility, and often finds himself travelling to a different destination on the other side of the world at short notice. It’s the kind of business where looking for ways to innovate is very important, as is time management.

Just to clarify, innovation in the core product is a long-term game for reasons of investment and regulation, so the focus is on an innovative approach to how things are done.

I can therefore understand his deep frustration when he describes the weekly telecon. A large number of people assemble at the same time every week around their conference phones. The time is chosen to accommodate as many of the global team and their direct reports as possible, but inevitably some people are up really early and some really late. There is an understandable impact on operational effectiveness and family life.

The first item on the agenda is to understand who is on the line. Given that there are over fifty people on the call – yes, you did read that correctly – this takes some time. The boss then launches into a list of the other items she wants to cover, then starts the meeting. I use the word “meeting” advisedly here. As I’m sure you’ll have worked out already, this format is not the most efficient or appropriate for an exchange of views, so it simply degenerates into a monologue interspersed with questions directed at the “usual suspects” on the call.  “Jim, what do you think?” wakes Jim up with a start to realize his mind had drifted somewhere else….. And before you know it the hour is up and everybody is signing off.

An agenda is produced in advance, with different people chosen at random to speak on ideas for initiatives to improve the effectiveness of the business. These often don’t relate to previous initiatives that are just left to roll on, leading to a large number of projects and a small number of completions. Over time the operating managers have realized the situation, so are sapped of the energy and will to persevere. This is even before the regulatory implications of any change can be evaluated.

All that is achieved is the opportunity for the boss to verbally issue instructions that could have been done by email. There is no time to seriously discuss how the business can do things better, no coordinated project structure and no project management. And yet, innovation is expected. The senior operating managers are expected to improve the way they run their businesses, which of course is the right thing to do. However in the absence of a common approach, managers just do what they think is right for their office. This produces some nice short-term gains but an inevitable fragmentation of practice.

This situation may be somewhat extreme, and be as much about the efficient use of time and clear communication as it is about innovation. Nevertheless I think there are some points to make. First, if you are serious about innovation, time must be found to do it properly, with a clear link to strategy, a strong understanding of priority areas to attack, a process that’s well understood and targets to reach. There is no point allocating an hour in the management meeting agenda and saying, “right, it’s innovation time, let’s have some ideas.” And please, don’t start an innovation initiative with a suggestion scheme.

Second, as much commonality of approach as possible should be sought to avoid wide deviation in practice. On this point, I appreciate the attraction of individual initiative and there is no desire to quash it, on the contrary. While the really important areas should have the best available way for common implementation, the best source of this is often an entrepreneurial group of people who have piloted the new method and shown it to work.

Finally, your people are all really busy; don’t waste their time on pointless meetings just to show them who is boss.

image credit: businessman standing image from bigstock

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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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