Tuesday, April 09, 2013

What innovators share with farmers

The initial title I gave to this blog post was "innovation is more like farming than magic" but I felt that title was a disservice to both farmers and magicians.  However, it often seems like many of my clients want innovation to be more magic than work.  They desire an instantaneous result sprung from an empty hat with little work or commitment.  Innovation isn't a sleight of hand, but a consistent commitment to methods, tools and disciplines.  What they don't understand is how closely innovation, especially innovation success sustained over a long period of time, resembles farming.

"Humble" Origins

I was lucky enough to grow up in a farming family.  My mother's family has been in the business for literally centuries.  Living on a farm and raising the food that you eat gives a different perspective on where things come from, and what it takes to succeed.

Farmers today are far different than the image you may hold of them.  While they work close to the land, many are very technically sophisticated, linked into commodity exchanges, leveraged financially and using the latest in agroscience, satellite imagery and farm equipment.  Yet in many ways they are still beholden to inputs and environmental conditions outside their control.  If this sounds a bit like your business environment, you may be surprised how many similarities there are between good farming practices and innovation.

What do farmers do all day?

To grow a crop, farmers:
  • Prepare the field, turning over the soil and replenishing it
  • Plant the right seeds at the right time
  • Nurture young shoots, fertilizing and removing weeds and pests
  • Prune early fruits to ensure maximum yield
  • Harvest when the plants are at peak perfection
Yet, in spite of high technology, advanced weather prediction systems, the latest in fertilizer technology and much more, a farmer can do everything right and still lose a crop, due to a freak snowstorm, a periodic blight, an unexpected drought, or the overabundance of yield from other farmers which drives down the price.

How do those steps relate to successful innovation in a large business?

Innovators who demonstrated sustained innovation success:
  • Prepare the ground, by developing good communication about the need for innovation and align corporate cultures so that the culture embraces innovation rather than rejecting it.
  • Plants many "seeds" - encourages a lot of ideas, not just once, but on a consistent basis
  • Nurtures new ideas - open to new ideas that challenge the status quo, or extend the business model, successful innovators welcome new ideas, encouraging them and helping them grow by reducing barriers, doubting Thomases, funding issues and other distractions 
  • Develops the best concepts - eliminating some ideas and maximizing the potential of others
  • Harvests the best ideas when the ideas are ready, not when the demand is the highest.  Good innovators demonstrate patience.
Yet, in spite of all their best intents, good innovators often find that even though they did everything right - improving the culture, planting lots of ideas, encouraging nascent and disruptive concepts, remaining patient - everything can, and sometimes will go bad.  Timing, market conditions, technology shifts and other internal and external conditions can stymie innovation.

When the farmer's crop fails or doesn't yield, he or she simply responds by doing what they know best - repeating the process and hoping to do an even better job next year.  They sustain their practices.  When corporations aren't initially successful with innovation, they blame the tools, the market, the competition, and take up another management philosophy or technique rather than learning from errors and mistakes to improve innovation outcomes.

No sleight of hand

Too many firms believe innovation should be like pulling a rabbit out of the hat - a fast result with little investment.  There's no real rationale for this thinking, but it seems awfully prevalent.  What they fail to understand is what the farmer knows - innovation, like growing crops, follow a natural process and has a progression that demands early investment, developing the environment, using the best tools available.  And even when you do all that, it can still fail.  The real signifying action is what your organization does when it inevitably "fails" at innovation - which it will.  Does it cast innovation aside, or does it recommit to all the necessary activities to build a sustainable innovation capability?  And, while farming may seem a far cry from today's rough and tumble, ever-accelerating business environment, remember that the farmer deals with all the same financial issues as a business, manages a large capital investment, manages people and technology, and is more dependent on external and environmental factors outside his or her control than any other business.  Which leads me to one other factor that farmers have that innovators need to mirror.  No one farms who doesn't love to farm, and no firm innovates that doesn't love to innovate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:37 AM

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