Thursday, May 28, 2009

Bringing in Innovation Culture - How do I start?

Location: Board Room

There was one week to go before the annual results are announced. People were poring over Excel sheets and some worry lines were beginning to show up in some of the faces. Suddenly there was a hushed silence.

Stephen was the CEO and the one who was going to face the music next week when the results are announced. He was calm, composed but everybody around the table knew that he was not overjoyed with the results. The main problem was that just recently their main competitor had released a slew of products which had so far significantly captured their existing market and was threatening to overtake their advantage unless they react. They had to react quickly and decisively. After a heated discussion on their next steps, they all decided that they will announce “Innovation” as the mantra to solve their current problems and overtake their competitor.

This scene could have played out in many large organisations time and again. The problem though is that half of these announcements are generally to pay lip service and nothing beyond. But this time, the situation is slightly different because of the existing market conditions and the immediate threat.

2 Weeks later

Stephen was relatively happy with the way he was able to explain the disappointing results. The share holders seem to trust his story on innovation and ideas. But he knew that he had to deliver and time was short.

Nadia was the recently appointed VP of Innovation. She knew that the results of creating an innovative environment was definitely the way forward but she also knew that it takes time and that was something which was not in her side. She had to show quick results and was wondering how she can do that.

Does this sound clich├ęd? Question is how do we tackle this issue? How can we show quick results through Innovation and how do we slowly but steadily change the corporate culture showing quick wins and progress. My feeling is that we need both short term and long term measures. Here are my thoughts on this topic and how I feel top leaders can address this issue:

Short term measures to bring in an innovation culture:

  • Identify themes/areas where innovation can be applied and get ideas/suggestions from maximum employees as possible.

  • Take people into confidence and give them maximum incentives for focussing on this.
    Appreciate that change can be difficult and so encourage and promote right behaviours as much as possible.

  • Ensure transparency and be positive in all responses. For Eg: If any ideas are rejected, give detailed explanation why (not high level replies). Also make this visible for everybody so that they can understand your thinking process.

  • Monitor the response of senior leaders and middle management staff. They have the highest influence and really drive the behaviour of the staff. People will be very quick to retreat into their shell if they are not encouraged or they feel that their ideas have not been considered enough. This is the easiest way to kill such initiatives.

Long term measures to bring in an innovation culture

  • Encourage failures and bring in a culture of experimentation and trial. No idea is bad and encourage employees to question all accepted norms and procedures.

  • Reduce management layers and get the leaders and the top management staff communicate as much as possible with the field force and the customer facing staff. This will drive open communication and ensure that all are in sync.

  • Be wary of political influences and tight hierarchical structures not adapting to changes.

  • Brainstorm regularly and make it a habit for staff to meet regularly, discuss and improve. Document and communicate these thoughts with all the employees to trigger more thinking around this and to encourage everybody.

  • Share best practices and encourage open innovation concepts as well so that the team is receptive to outside ideas and information.

I have tried to summarise some key points management teams can take up when they try to use innovation as a means of driving growth. Of course, this is like a journey and this is by no means complete. Do you have any more techniques which are worth sharing? Do share your experiences. We need all the help we can get to bring about change in our workplace.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hierarchy and Innovation

I recently caught up with my friend who had been laid off from a large organisation and is currently employed with a small start up. Amongst other things, I was asking him what the differences were between his previous employer and his current one and he mentioned that the biggest difference was with respect to the innovation culture. The start up is so very open to innovation and promotes the innovation culture that he feels the bigger organisation can never catch up with that. That set me thinking.

Most large organisations are characterised by hierarchical organisational structure and by well defined processes. Is this a deterrent to the innovation culture? This typically breeds a “silo”ed way of working where more rules are specified and boundaries dictated. This will over a period of time kill the experimental spirit of individuals and discourage “out of the box” thinking. I know there are a few examples which have defied this logic but that has happened only due to exceptional and conscious reasons.

The other fact is that most large organisations have found a way of achieving success. This in turn makes people reticent and satisfied to create boundaries and stick to that. While, this strategy may work during good times, it will bite back with a vengeance during bad times since suddenly people are shaken off their comfort zones and more importantly have forgotten or have not developed their innovation or risk taking abilities.

The start up firm, in sharp contrast, is still finding its feet and so is open to try out new things, learns quickly and progresses. This in turn makes them very agile and able to adapt really quickly. Also they have less baggage and risk to worry about since they are the underdogs and so literally free to try out new things.

This is a pity since the vast majority of us are employed in large organisations and it seems such a shame that the majority of us are not potentially using our complete skill sets or exploring the innovative side of us.

So can we do something about this? Surely there have been some large organisations that have broken this shackle. How have they achieved this? Can we learn from them?

The answer thankfully, is that, it is definitely possible. But it just needs time, patience, constant reinforcement and some able leaders who believe in this and are willing to lead by example.

So how do you get started? For starters, large organisations have to make a conscious effort to acknowledge the problem and then take concrete steps to progress this. Some of the initiatives I can think of are:

  • Reward people to break the corporate silos and participate in company wide initiatives

  • Earmark money specifically for exploring new ideas/avenues and ensure it is spent only for new avenues (not extensions of existing areas)

  • Consciously break strict hierarchical structures at work and encourage the formation of specialised groups. This will get the best minds to come together and discuss their challenges and you can be sure that some good ideas will come out of this.

  • Focus specifically on middle management layers. They are generally the most difficult to get to participate in company wide initiatives since they are so focussed on the profit and loss of their departments.

  • Ensure that the best talent is rotated amongst various departments to ensure that knowledge is shared. These resources are the best influencers and so it is important they are spread to all corners of the organisation.

  • Publish success stories and encourage talent who lead by example. This is very contagious and soon you could have different teams competing with each other to contribute to such initiatives.

Have more ideas? I would be happy to hear from you. Share your experiences or thoughts on how this can be further improved.

The path is not easy but definitely worth pursuing. Let me leave you with a thought. The problem today is that we consider innovation today only when pushed to the wall like we run to a doctor when we are sick. In sharp contrast we ought to be thinking of it all the time (like health wellness centres getting popular these days). Let us not wait for a wake up call to focus on innovation.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Intrapreneur and Innovation Culture

Harry was excited. Even though, it was 1 a.m and pretty late, he was wide awake and rather pleased at how his work had developed over the last few days. He reflected over the last few days and smiled thinking that this entire idea happened over a casual chat with a colleague during a coffee break. He was now waiting to go and present this to his colleagues and take it further.

One of the important persons who can grow and enhance the innovation culture of any organisation is somebody who plays the role of an “Intrapreneur”. In simple words, he is the evangelist who motivates people to think without any boundaries and encourages resources to go beyond their normal day jobs. It is very important that these intrapreneurs are given freedom to explore non-conventional areas by the top management. So how does this help and why is it important?

Frankly most of the benefits of this are intangible and can only be measured over a period of time. The main advantage is that a spirit of experimentation and thinking without limits is encouraged throughout the organisation. Of course, this does not mean that everybody within the organisation will become like this overnight but definitely over a period of time, resources will feel encouraged to look at new approaches to solve problems and not feel constrained.

So what are the important skills required by an Intrapreneur and how do you identify one?

Some of the main skills are:

  1. Passion for a particular topic

  2. Self-starter, positive and able to overcome obstacles

  3. Strong Soft Skills to convince and cajole despite scepticism

  4. Ability to evangelise, communicate new ideas clearly

So how do you measure results and progress of this initiative? Frankly this is a tricky subject since there are no direct answers. We cannot apply our normal project management principles to this and again results need to be measured only over a period of time. Having said that, these are some good indicators to measure progress:

  • Enthusiasm within teams to try out new ideas/technology

  • Number of roadshows within organisation showing cutting edge innovations and the participation at these forums

  • Scientific temper within the organisation measured by the participation in seminars/patents/papers published etc

The biggest problem is sustaining these initiatives and engraining them into the corporate culture. These sound so intuitive that I am sure every organisation at some point or other should have implemented many, if not, all these initiatives. But very few do it consistently and do it regularly. We also need to incentivitise this and ensure that all the staff involved are motivated enough (regardless of the short term goals or the immediate market situation).
So how do you motivate and promote such ventures throughout the organisation? Well – there are two things which are pretty effective and which need to happen in parallel consistently enough:

  1. Identify and reward role models throughout the organisation and highlight the innovation initiative.

  2. Give highest priority/budgets along with the best resources to these initiatives so that the message goes across consistently that these are important.

So are there any pitfalls to avoid and watch out for? The main ones are about the direction of the initiative. Some pointers:

  • It is a good idea to define broadly the theme for such initiatives just to give a direction to the thinking efforts. Having said that, keep it broad.

  • The initial few success stories should be carefully chosen and the right behaviour needs to be highlighted. Since these are high profile, there will be attempts to replicate this across the organisation. So the examples should be worth replicating.

  • Ensure that these decisions are free of any political or other influences. This is the easiest way to kill such initiatives. Keep these decisions as transparent as possible and encourage all attempts. Explore the idea of these decisions being taken by all the employees themselves which will increase transparency and also get everybody involved.

  • Be very lavish in your incentives. I really believe that for such initiatives “If you throw peanuts, you will get monkeys”. You really need to believe that your next big multi million dollar return is going to come from this. So if this is the case, you don’t want to insult your employees by throwing peanuts for realising this.

Have more to add to this list. I would love to hear from you. Here’s to building a very successful and innovative workplace. We all deserve it!!!!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I love to fail

“I love to fail. In fact we encourage all of you to enjoy failing and learn to fail fast and fail often.” - Dr Jones started his speech with these words. He was addressing a group of recent recruits who had just joined his research team. They were all bright, enthusiastic and had just recently joined his organisation.

Rohan was one of the young research scholars and was listening attentively to Dr Jones. He was enjoying listening to the talk but the last few sentences took him by surprise. This was quite contrary to what he has been taught till now. He decided to explore this topic in more detail and speak to Dr Jones separately on this at a later point in time.

Right from our childhood days, we have been taught to pursue success relentlessly and be ashamed of failure. So much so, that there is a stigma associated with failure which makes us feel depressed and even forget it like a bad nightmare. Isn’t this your experience as well?

Now before you think I am being philosophical and start wondering whether you are in the wrong place, let me assure you that a mindset of accepting failure and learning from it is a very important discipline of innovation temper. Raised eyebrows?? Not exactly sure what I am alluding to. Let me explain…..

One of the most important traits which, breeds an innovative culture of an organisation, is to encourage employees to experiment and try out new techniques. Obviously the bolder methods you try, the more the chances of failure. But this should be encouraged and even applauded so that the employees continue bravely on this path.

I was reading an article recently on whether children are more creative than adults and if so, why? I frankly believe that children are definitely more creative than adults and one of the reasons for this is that children (especially small children) are not afraid to try new things and do this without inhibitions. As we grow up, slowly we become more self-conscious and are worried about other’s opinions etc which slowly but steadily makes us avoid risks or makes us stop thinking without inhibitions. As a result, we become less creative and prefer to tread on a known path rather than embracing the unknown.

While this may be OK in other areas, it is definitely something we need to unlearn to innovate in the true sense of the word. The only way we can overcome this fear is when even our failures (not just our successes) are encouraged and even celebrated. When this is done consistently by the top management and over a period of time, slowly we learn to view failure as just another result as success and stop to fear or feel discouraged by it.

But surely, not all kinds of failure are good. Well – there are some failures which do not fall in this category for obvious reasons:

  1. Any failure which is repeating over a period of time.

  2. Any failure which is due to inefficient processes or poor workmanship

  3. Any failure which comes from half baked efforts or due to similar reasons.

Apart from these, failures which are due to people experimenting with established or new processes, failures due to people deviating from the norm should not only be encouraged but also celebrated. These are all good as long as “there is method in the madness” and also the failures are recorded and part of a bigger picture.

While all this sounds very obvious, trust me, implementing this in practice in an organisation needs a lot of courage and patience. It also needs strong reinforcement. Mind you – we are not encouraging all failures (especially of the sort we identified earlier as not good) but advocating that a certain type of failures are good. There is a thin line and it could be confusing at first. But over a period of time, it becomes second nature to everybody and the results will prove that the struggle is definitely worth it. In very simple terms, we are only encouraging everybody to think without boundaries and question everything (very similar to a 5 year old who replies to all your answers only with one question – Why?)

The good part is that this kind of behaviour spreads pretty quickly and soon you will have an entire organisation which thinks in such a way. That is a sure recipe for success and that will only mean that new and innovative ideas are pouring in from all over the organisation.

Won’t it be great if we can achieve that? Well – the good news is that it can be achieved. Let me end on that pleasant note.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Open Innovation Killer

Dr Judy was a worried woman. She was the Chief Scientist and leading a group of scientists working on the next generation product for her company. But, today, she came to know that her nearest rival competitor has launched a revolutionary product which, in tests so far, is looking much better than their product. She knew that this was going to affect her company's market share. She needed to react and react quickly at that!!! Time was of the biggest essence.

She immediately called for an emergency meeting of her company's senior most scientists and decided to brainstorm on the options available now, given this new development. After heated discussions for nearly 2 hours, the top two options that lay before her on the table with the pros and cons of each option were as follows:

First Option

  1. Develop a rival product on the same lines as the competitor.


  • Flexibility in designing and ensuring that more features are offered than the competitor’s thereby capturing the market again.

  • Time to market could be an issue.
  • Run the risk of being seen as a market follower rather than a leader

Second Option
  1. Use the same underlying technology as the rival company product but innovate on the business model or supporting features

  • Can launch pretty quickly

  • May need to sort out any IP issues.
  • May need to work through how this will be integrated with other internal products.

Tough decision to make, eh? What will you decide?

Anyway the purpose of introducing this story was not to help you make a decision. We probably need more information and data before deciding. But it was to talk about a culture or mindset which is present in many organisations which does not even give Option 2 a good hearing but instead decide on Option 1 almost always. Why? Since they seem to be suffering from the “Not Invented Here” syndrome.

Not invented here syndrome is one of the single biggest killer of all Open Innovation initiatives. In simple words, it is the inability of the scientists to accept that good inventions and ideas can come from elsewhere, even outside the organisation. Instead they close themselves to such options firmly believing that internal options are always the best since they know the other supporting infrastructure the best.

Why is this worth discussing so much about?

Well – mainly for 2 reasons:

  1. In today’s environment where funding is a big issue, we need to ensure that our energies are focussed on the right initiatives. Essentially only a few initiatives are going to be taken forward and we need to ensure that the right ones are selected.
  2. The more internal focussed you are, the more you run the risk of developing products and solutions which are proprietary and cannot be easily integrated with other outside products. This will, at some stage, affect your ability to react quickly to market situations.

So you must be wondering – OK – I agree this sounds like a problem. So how do I go about solving it?

Frankly as all cultural changes, it is not going to happen overnight. It requires persistent reinforcement from the top management team. There should also be incentives given to teams to come up with solutions using outside inventions thereby giving more direction to the creative energies of the various teams.

So far so good - Now what we have been discussing so far is about incremental innovation projects which are typically majority of the projects out there. But once in a while, we do have an opportunity to work on “blue sky initiatives” where you have a chance to design an entire new innovative initiative from scratch. In such a scenario, again it makes sense to get some innovative ideas from the outside world? Frankly I would argue that this is not a choice but the only way to go. Why? Since this is the only way we can ensure that you are not stuck with similar set of thinking and to encourage real “out of the box” solutions. In fact the success of these initiatives is closely linked to how much you are able to come up with original ideas which stretches and rewrites all existing boundaries and assumptions.

So in summary, the top management team should be aware of this giant open innovation killer commonly known as the “Not Invented here” syndrome. If they see this pattern emerging on a continuous basis in the organisation thinking, they should be quick to take corrective action before it starts to kill all their open innovation initiatives.

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