Innovation: lost in translation
So, in an era when CEOs and senior executives consistently extol innovation, yet fail to adequately follow up or invest in innovation, what are we to believe? Are executives guilty of "innowashing", talking about innovation without committing resources to drive up the stock price? Or are they guilty of cynicism, simply trying to appear innovative without investments? Or, do they believe that every utterance is immediately implemented within the organization? Or, perhaps, do they lack understanding about what it takes to convert innovation demands into productive outcomes?
First, the basics. Executives don't need more innovation, any more than the rest of the company does. What the executives and their companies need are more growth, more differentiation, more profits, new products and entry into new markets. Innovation is simply a set of tools and capabilities that can help achieve those goals. But innovation is only a set of tools and capabilities, it is not a sentient capability residing in your organization simply waiting for the executive direction.
So, what's the problem in translation?
Executives want innovation, but they need near term profitability, so their most consistent emphasis is on efficiency and near term profits. But, once that fact is acknowledged, we have to ask they next question - why is the demand for innovation lost in translation throughout the organization?
I for one don't believe many executives are cynical or innowashing their companies. I believe many executives are deeply (and rightly) concerned about their innovation capabilities. So if we eliminate the few executives who are talking up innovation merely for marketing's sake, that means that executives are either detached from the reality of translating demands into corporate actions, or don't understand how woefully unprepared their organizations are when attempting innovation. Or, perhaps both.
When executives request innovation from their organizations, they are sending signals that innovation should be prioritized - but at the cost of what other activities or capabilities? Every organization today runs on the bitter edge of capabilities and available resources. When a firm focuses on innovation, what work should it put aside? What happens if it "takes its eye" off the ball, and misses its revenue or profitability numbers in a quarter? Unless executives detail specific actions and resources for innovation outcomes, little innovation work will occur, because senior and mid-level managers are overly focused on meeting short term goals. No new objective that the executives demand, without constant follow-up and clear decisions about investments, will get off the ground.
Lack of skills
Most organizations today have deep skills and exceptionally capable people who have been consistently trained in the existing processes and methods. The organization to some degree is at the peak of its capability and knowledge - about existing processes. This means that the executives take for granted that the knowledge and capability for innovation is as strong in the organization as the capabilities and skills for business as usual. It's often shocking to discover how little capability there is in an organization for innovation, since many people have never attempted it in a corporate setting. Yes, there are a range of tools scattered here and there, and a handful of people who have been to facilitation or brainstorming classes, but that doesn't make a consistent, coherent capability. Executives are always surprised by how much skill building and capability development is necessary to innovate effectively.
Translation and Skill Development
These two factors indicate that innovation is tightly tied to capability development, communication, change management and culture. Until the concept of innovation is firmly established and constantly communicated and resourced, it will be hard for firms to innovate consistently. And, until the skills and capabilities are developed, and the culture is shifted to be more accomodating to innovation, little innovation will get done. Innovation is not a project, but a corporate capability that spans factors like communication, culture, process and governance. Until organizations understand that, the kabuki dance will continue, and the innovation demand will be lost in translation.