Thursday, October 17, 2013

Trust is the missing innovation factor

I've been pondering for a while how to bridge the gap between executives and their expectations of innovation, and the middle managers and staff and their ability to imagine, design and build new products and services.  We've noted previously that a gap exists between what executives want and middle managers and staff can do.  Paul Hobcraft and I developed the Executive Workmat to provide a framework for executives, so they can demonstrate their commitment to innovation and build the "environment" in which innovation can thrive.

But I think we need to go a bit deeper.  When two parties agree on a big goal, they usually document the agreement in the form of a contract.  I was thinking that a contract that called out what executives owe to the organization, and what the organization owes to the executives, would go a long way to clarifying innovation investments and activities, and may smooth the way for more innovation.

So I created these lists.

What executives owe to the organization when it comes to innovation:

  • Clear strategic direction
  • Long term engagement
  • Carefully defined goals and scope
  • Adequate, appropriate resources and funding
  • The delineation of acceptable risks
  • A willingness to override existing culture, processes, and resource commitments
  • The trust to allow teams to do new or unusual activities
  • The time it takes to do innovation well
What the organization owes to executives:
  •  Focus
  • Commitment
  • The willingness to discover, investigate and learn
  • Optimism, not pessimism
  • Responsibility, not blame shifting
  • Energy and enthusiasm
  • Brevity where possible
  • Something new, valuable and relevant to customers
  • The chutzpah to make unusual recommendations
Can you imagine the commitment, the energy and the passion that would be unleashed if both parties to an innovation activity signed a contract that promised these factors?  Of course there would need to be a monitoring or reporting mechanism to ensure both sides lived up to their agreements, but if executives promised to deliver the factors above, and innovation teams and the organization as a whole promised to deliver on their factors, innovation is then just a matter of good problem definition and effective tools and processes.  

The Alchemist's Stone

As innovators, we are all seeking that one ingredient, that one magic formula that will eliminate obstacles and barriers and radically simplify innovation.   What I know to be true is that ingredient isn't a technique or tool.  It's not a person or a consultant.  It's not an insight or a goal.  Ultimately, innovation is about trust.  Trust exhibited by the executives to try out some new methods, to fund unusual activities, to explore new markets or needs.  Trust exhibited by innovation teams to discover, create and present unusual ideas and not get laughed out of the room.  Trust that investments are valuable, and trust that time spent on ideas will be realized in new products and services.

Unfortunately there is in many organizations a lack of trust, in vertical hierarchies and across virtual organizational stovepipes.  This lack of trust leads to constrained thinking, cynicism, reduced funding and tight organization definition with a focus on efficiency.  When executives trust their teams, even when the teams are doing unusual and unfamiliar work, and when teams trust their executives that the work is valuable and will be implemented, everything else becomes secondary.  Tools and processes will improve the state where none exist, but don't build trust.  Expert idea generators and third party consultants can generate more ideas, but may reduce trust between executives and their teams.  You can innovate without trust, but with trust innovation will accelerate.

If you don't have innate trust today, can you create and build trust through the use of my simplistic contract above?  In the absence of deep trust, defining a project and carefully delivering that project, and then repeating that activity is the only way to build trust and establish that both sides are worthy of trust.  Only then can innovation accelerate.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:57 AM


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