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Innovation – Innovation as a business discipline

I have now established many of the key aspects of innovation: what it is; why it is important; where do you focus innovation; aligning innovation with your business strategy and in the previous article I looked at the drivers of innovation – basically the organisation’s raison d’être for innovation. All of these concepts are important when you embark on the innovation journey and it will assist you in making critical decisions that will come up during innovation utilisation and exploitation, but it has not addressed the key issue of how do you make innovation happen in your business? This week I want to state the case for approaching innovation a business discipline.
Innovation as a business discipline
First, let’s consider typical innovation in many businesses. If innovation is a one-time, discrete event, there’s probably not much need for a defined process, since the work is adhoc and can’t be well defined, and won’t be done again, at least in the short run. In this situation, an innovation process is overkill. I want to argue that many of these efforts won’t be successful, since innovation requires skills and disciplines, and risk tolerances that can’t be deployed in emergencies or “one time” events.
I agree with the approach of Jeffrey Phillips, who argues the case for thinking about innovation as a repeatable capability, a business discipline. If an organisation believes that innovation can drive value over time, it would make sense that the organisation should create structures that will allow the effort to be repeated. The organisation could define how the work to generate and evaluate ideas should be accomplished and could begin to define the roles that support that “work flow”. If this is beginning to sound a lot like a “process”, then you are correct. In a large organisation, any work that must be done well is done aligned to a defined process. A process allows the business to define upstream and downstream activities, to direct and simplify workflow, assign tasks and responsibilities to people who have been trained in their roles. A process also ensures work is done the same way, within reason, every time it is conducted and that the process and the people involved enjoy the benefits of a learning curve, gaining insights and skills over time. Think about every other important activity in your business. It follows a well-defined and well-regulated process, whether that process is a formal, documented ISO certified process or an informal process sustained by the corporate culture. If innovation is important, why wouldn’t it have a defined methodology and process as well?
Looking at it from a more practical perspective in terms of what processes needs to be defined for innovation to happen, I like the approach of Paul Williams, who defines innovation in terms of the equation:  Need + Ideas + Action = Innovation.  Ideas come from problem identification, creative problem solving, idea generation and creativity.  Action comes from the processes and activities which make the best ideas become real things.  Sometimes the action results in the form of prototypes, or models, or simulations or test software.  To get there most reliably, you need the type of rigour found in project management or new product development processes.  The final factor in the innovation equation is Need, or the simple fact that the idea made real provides value to someone, value that might even be worth paying money to receive.  Once you get your innovation into the real-world, you need to constantly defend it from competitor attacks and marginalisation, and to do that, you need a quality and process improvement mindset.
The combination of Idea Management, Project Management and Quality Management provides a comprehensive, well-ordered, repeatable and reliable total innovation management business process.
Next Time
To establish innovation as a business discipline requires the right leadership, the next topic to be covered.

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