Innovators and Operators

The July-August 2010 edition of Harvard Business Review has an article called “How to Stop the Innovation Wars” which discusses a common misunderstanding that the ‘innovation’ side of the house must be separate from the ‘operations’ side largely because innovation is something done by a few people and without accountability or a solid process. In my opinion, if you’re a part of an on-going business then you simply cannot innovate in a vacuum, you must involve the people responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company, involve them early on and solicit their feedback. If you want to make progress with your concepts then you’ll need to come up with a rough, repeatable process that shows how things move through your innovation pipeline. For example, how do you know where and when to innovate? A simple response of “We field suggestions from the rest of the organization through a standardized process…” is fine. So is “When we sit in meetings we listen for unspoken problems, that’s where we start to look.” You might get some funny looks, be prepared to explain what you’re listening for. Specific phrases like “We spend a lot of time/money…” are excellent ways to see bottlenecks in the organization and begin to innovate new business processes or product improvements.

Once you’ve dealt with the “Where to look” question, you must next deal with the “What’s the impact…” question. “When we heard it took a lot of time and people to accomplish X, we looked into the process and found it could be streamlined without impact to other areas of the organization. There are many questions still open but based on a very simple cost/benefit analysis we’ve discovered that we could potentially save $50,000 per year for three years.” Now, if you’re on the creative side of the thought process, PLEASE get someone from the accounting side to help you with the cost/benefit. This is where cross functional teams really come into play, you probably don’t want to get near the financials and accounting probably doesn’t want to sit and listen to other people’s problems. That’s fine as both groups have their strengths. Make full use of them.

You’re going to have to deal with the “How do you come up with new ideas to solve for…” at some point. I’ve worked with IDEO Method Cards but frankly, that’s overkill for a lot of what I’m doing. An appropriate answer might be “We followed the team around all week and found…” or “We conducted interviews with the entire staff, confirmed our original assumptions and are coming up with a detailed plan to address it. We also found two more potential time savers but we will address those after this project is completed.” Either response should work but be prepared for someone else to ask the same people what you did. Their answers and yours had better not differ by much. By the way, we all know that once you find someone who says “That’s how we’ve always done it” you’ve found a gold mine.

If you’ve done your homework and were convincing you’ll probably be asked to proceed. From here on you need a plan. If you can prevent it, don’t give up ownership – you saw the problem, you potentially see the solution, so you run with it. This might be a great time to enlist a project manager. Try to find one that leans toward the creative side if you can. Good luck, I’ve met just one in twenty years. You will need someone on your team that can lay out all the steps and put a general time line together. If you keep ownership then YOU need to report on where you are in terms of that schedule. Be prepared to explain what progress you’ve made, what your next steps are and what is still left to be resolved. Be prepared for the infinitely inept question of “When will you figure out how to…”¬† If you knew the answer to that you’d already have the answer and you wouldn’t be reporting that it was still a problem, right? A tactful response to this might be “It’s a complex problem, we’ve made headway, we’re confident we’ll figure it out.” If you’re really stuck on a problem, now’s a great time to ask to borrow someone for a few days. Do not get bogged down trying to fix one serious problem – get as many people across the organization involved trying to fix it as possible. Do not make it look like you put the project at risk because you didn’t ask for help early enough. Also, if it looks like you can’t fix it, then friggin’ say so.

If you generally follow these suggestions then you should be making some progress easing people’s tension with innovation teams. And that’s all you’re really trying to do at this point, especially if you’re just getting things off the ground. In my opinion an innovation team that is just starting shouldn’t have a complete methodology. You can develop that as you grow. But what you need to avoid is the perception that you work without accountability and structure. Hopefully this gets you started, if there’s things I’ve missed (definitely) or you can add something you’ve learned, by all means please leave¬† a comment.