(By Vijay Govindarajan)
“Not every idea is worth pursuing. The first step is to narrow down the ideas to worthwhile opportunities. Have a process to evaluate whether it is the right opportunity by asking: Do we want to pursue this–does it align with our purpose? Can we execute it–does it align with our core competencies? If it takes off in the best possible way, will the benefits be worth it? Are the risks such that the damage won’t be irrecoverable if things go wrong?“
Thomas Edison said it over a century ago: “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” Unfortunately, when companies launch innovation initiatives, they tend to devote most of their time, energy and attention to that initial 1% – the thrilling hunt for the breakthrough idea. The real innovation challenge, however, lies beyond the idea, in a long, hard journey from idea to impact. Innovative companies sustain a track record of success by creating the right “climate” for employees to cultivate the innovation mindset — to think different, act different, and achieve extraordinary success.
Not every idea is worth pursuing. The first step is to narrow down the ideas to worthwhile opportunities. Have a process to evaluate whether it is the right opportunity by asking: Do we want to pursue this–does it align with our purpose? Can we execute it–does it align with our core competencies? If it takes off in the best possible way, will the benefits be worth it? Are the risks such that the damage won’t be irrecoverable if things go wrong?
Dare to seize the opportunities that meet these criteria. Create mechanisms to seed fund and resource the right opportunities. Have a portfolio view of the opportunities, and ensure that there is a balance of opportunities that span current, adjacent and new space. Recognize that seizing the opportunity is but a tiny first step – like a little plant has sprouted. You have to nurture it patiently until it grows into a big tree with deep roots and a thick trunk.
The next challenge is to strike the right balance between getting the most out of these opportunities AND keeping your performance engine humming. What are the best structures to create so you neither disturb the rhythm of the performance engine nor drop the ball on opportunities? Many organizations embark on large-scale change management efforts to “make” their organizations more innovative; most fail. Our guiding principle is quite the opposite: Do no harm. The challenge is not just to make innovation happen, but to do so while simultaneously excelling in ongoing operations. Butter before Jam. Cake before icing. But butter AND jam. Cake AND icing. If the performance engine is humming along, it’s best not to impose an innovation challenge if it would disturb that rhythm. We would opt for minimal change on that front, and creating dedicated innovation teams that work in partnership with shared staff. Rather than major surgery, aim for precision surgery or micro surgery.
Create a climate where resourcefulness is encouraged and rewarded. Pass down organizational stories, highlighting the obstacles that employees powered through to get results, through successive generations of leaders.
Achieve Extraordinary Success
Create a climate in which employees can focus on outcomes instead of getting caught in the activity trap. Create separate planning processes for innovation efforts that are big enough to require dedicated teams. Unlike the performance engine–where the planning process is focused on financial, customer, and market share performance–the innovation planning process needs to focus on learning, viewing innovation as a disciplined experiment. What gets measured gets done. In companies that consciously cultivate a climate of innovation, innovation is not about no accountability, but a different kind of accountability. Construct just enough structure to make sure you’re making progress in the right direction, and no more.
If a flight going from Dallas to New York were a degree off, it would end up in the sea instead. Most flights, in fact, are more than a degree off 95% of the time. Most flights, though, land where they are supposed to. How do they do it? One key reason: the pilot has a “rough” flight plan and engages in dynamic course correction.
This same notion of a “rough” plan coupled with dynamic course correction is what we recommend in innovation efforts. If the performance engine has monthly planning meetings, the innovation side should have weekly “course correction” meetings. If the performance engine is on a weekly rhythm, the innovation side has to step it up a notch and get on a daily course correction cycle.
Expand the Pie
When the business model has stabilized, have systems in place to encourage employees to “expand the pie” by developing new revenue streams, increasing reach, or converting non-consumers into consumers. For example, Apple expanded its pie by creating the App Store, where individuals and small development shops could stand on Apple’s shoulders and reach a market they never could otherwise. In turn, Apple’s reach increased because their customers got access to a much larger pool of software. They expanded the pie for themselves, their partners, and their customers.
Innovation execution is neither innovation nor execution but its own strange beast. When tamed, however, it can be a source of enormous strength, lasting differentiation, and sustained success.