Monday, October 14, 2013

Persistence is the innovation secret sauce

I read today Jeff DeGraff's post about how to "Stop Starting and Start Stopping" things so you can improve innovation.  I've grown to enjoy DeGraff's posts.  His insights about innovation are always valuable.  So I come today not to reject his premise about the things you should stop doing to improve innovation.  Every firm needs to stop doing things that simply detract from focus and attention, and stop doing things that don't add value to free resources to focus on innovation.  I fully agree with that notion.  But we need to take this idea of stopping and starting activities, projects and tasks to task.  Innovation is always going to require starting some new activities, and ending some old or existing activities.  But what innovation is ultimately most about is change.  And it's the energy and commitment that are required for that change to succeed that is most important.

Starting something new, stopping something old

Starting activities or projects or ending existing processes, thinking or methods is vital, not just for innovation success but for the general health of the business.  Any business that becomes too complacent and too reliant on its existing products or capabilities will be disrupted at some point.  Any company that fails to start new activities to refresh products and services or simply create new products and services will become unattractive to customers who've become accustomed to new product introductions.  Most organizations find it relatively difficult to start new activities - products, projects or processes - because the companies have limited resources and talent bandwidth.  Usually, starting something new requires borrowing resources from existing products or processes, so both the new project suffers, as well as the existing product or process. 

Ending an existing product or process is even more difficult.  Businesses are full of "Zombie" products, processes and ideas.  These zombie products and ideas haunt the conference rooms of major corporations, constantly reconsidered and almost always rejected.  Killing existing products is equally difficult.  We are often too tied to past experiences and don't adequately calculate future benefits from new products and services.

But both acts - starting something new, and ending something old, are relatively simple in comparison to what it takes to innovate:  persistence.

The difference between

Starting something new, or ending something old, happens quite frequently.  Many, many projects and products are starting each year, and even a few are "killed" successfully.  The act of starting or stopping something is a relatively painless one.  The real challenge becomes sustaining the decision, especially when the existing products or processes are well-known, familiar and have a predictable market presence, and the new introduction is unfamiliar, risky with no promise of sales or market share.   While it may seem strange, it's often very easy to start something, but very difficult to finish a new product or process.  Innovation isn't so difficult in the beginning, or too difficult to kill with enough political will.  What is difficult is the patience and persistence necessary to move beyond an interesting ideas to a finished product, process or business model.

Making the decision to start, or stop, can be problematic but is eventually taken.  Keeping the focus on an innovation activity over the life of an idea is exceptionally difficult.  Remember that an idea is simply a mental concept.  The energy and focus it takes to convert a good concept into a viable product, see it developed and finally launched into the market, in conjunction with all of the other active products or services in your portfolio takes an enormous amount of focus, commitment and resources.  Right now the ingredient most in demand for any company is management attention.  Keeping the existing products and services fresh and viable is a full time job.  Trying to provide attention and commitment to existing products and new ones is almost impossible.

Persistence, energy and commitment

Some people will tell you the critical ingredients for good innovation are creative people.  Some will tell you it's about the right methods or tools.  Others will tell you good innovation is based on excellent customer insight.  They are all correct.  But they miss the most important ingredient - management attention, commitment and energy.  You can have good tools and good insight.  You can generate good ideas.  But without a committed executive team fully aware of the innovation activities and, more importantly, fully persistent in the cause of innovation, you simply won't succeed.  In our home we have a saying:  If momma ain't happy, then nobody is happy.  In this case perhaps a new saying applies:  If executives don't commit, innovation must be quit.  Or something like that.

How do you ensure executive energy and commitment to innovation?  First, try a little education.  Remind your executives of the timeframe from idea to new product commercialization.  We need them on board not only for the rapid idea generation, but supportive through the product development and market launch, which may happen two or three years from now.  Support through the entire process is vital.  Second, ensure you have a "sponsor".  Everyone wants innovation in the abstract.  Who is willing to put their name on the project?  Who will commit to sustaining engagement through the entire activity?  Third, provide frequent updates.  Don't allow the ideas to become just another product development, number 15 on the list of product development priorities.  Constantly report on the status of the idea, and use the sponsor to nudge the prioritization of the idea when it runs into the inevitable roadblocks.

Starting, Stopping, Committing

Starting new things and ending old things are both vital aspects for innovation.  For the most part starting and stopping are "point" solutions.  They require a quick decision and a fairly rapid activity, then we can "move on" to the next activity.  Persisting requires staying engaged through the entire life cycle of an idea, which can be stymied, pushed down the priority list or simply killed at any stage in the product life cycle.  Sure, we need to stop doing somethings to free up resources for more innovation.  And we need to starting doing some new things to perform at a much higher innovation level.  But what we need most from executives is persistence, commitment and engagement to make innovation thrive.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:03 AM


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