I have now discussed the innovation themes of generating useful ideas and choosing the best ideas to implement. This is the “sexy” part of innovation. The hard part is actually implementing the ideas to bring the innovations to life. Remember if it stays in idea form, that is all it is and ever will be – an idea – the idea has to be implemented to be an innovation. Execution is by far the discipline of innovation that the majority of organisations have the most difficulty with.
I am making the assumption here that after more than two years of writing this column, I do not have to make the case for innovation anymore. If you are not convinced yet on why you have to innovate, let me give you the very short answer here. Everything is changing: technology, market dynamics, customer preferences, the competition (existing and new), the political landscape and even the climate. If you are not evolving and adapting to these changes and staying competitive, your organisation will die. That is about the shortest “elevator pitch” I can give for innovation. Back to the focus of this article, so why are organisations struggling with execution? I have seen many innovation initiatives start up and exciting challenges are launched and the participants give great ideas and everybody is having a lot of fun….and then innovation dies a not-so-slow death as the ideas end up in file thirteen after the initial hype is over.
This is because of the innovation paradox: The reason why large organisations struggle with innovation is because they are designed to create operational efficiency. This deeply-rooted tendency goes all the way back to an organisation’s typical life cycle. In it’s infancy, it’s designed to bring innovation to the market. A start-up’s success is not gauged by earnings or quarterly reports; it’s measured by how well it identifies a problem in the market and matches it to a solution.
But that’s not what life is like within a mature organisation. When organisations reach maturity, the measure of success is very different: it’s profit. Once a business figures out how to solve its customers’ problems, organisational structures and processes emerge to guide the company towards efficient operation. Seasoned managers steer their employees from pursuing the art of discovery and towards engaging in the science of delivery. Employees are taught to seek efficiencies through leveraging of existing assets. This leads to the usual suspects of excuses of why execution is not happening: “It is not my job; I don’t have time; People will laugh at my idea; We’ve always done it this way; I know what the customer wants; It will never work here; We don’t have the resources; We do not have budget for this; If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Sound familiar?
In order to move from this efficiency-driven paradigm to innovation, i.e. executing on useful new ideas, involving risk and failure, the answer lies in recognising the limits of the organisation and empowering groups to function with very different goals and operational metrics. This entails that teams must be allowed the freedom to create new products, services and business models. This entails a different mind-set to driving efficiencies. If this realisation does not take place amongst organisational leadership first – executing on useful ideas and trying new things will always be a lower-level priority and therefore struggle to exist in the organisation. Being creative and getting things implemented can make an organisation unstoppable!
After reading a very thought-provoking article, I realised that I have neglected the people in organisations who are ultimately responsible for making a success of innovation. They are usually given titles such as “Innovation Manager” or “Chief Innovation Officer” or something in that line and they have a very daunting challenge in established organisations, so next time I will give them some advice on how to succeed in their roles. I conclude with one of my favourite innovation quotes of all time, from Phil McKinney: “When it comes to innovation, an ounce of execution is worth more than a ton of theory”.