Sunday, August 30, 2009

Innovation and Micro Management

Picture this. Your son is just about to take his first step. He walks one step convincingly and then starts to falter. If you are a typical parent, you will immediately be on your alert to catch your son from falling down and getting hurt. But we all know that falling down and getting up is part of the learning process.

A innovation project is a similar kind of experience. Many a time, project sponsors are over-protective and so short-circuit the success due to their over-zealous nature. Innovation Projects need to run for some time and find its groove. There is more harm than good in trying to micromanage and dig further during its initial run.

Half the time what people need is time to innovate and for their sponsors to have confidence in their skills and judgement. They also need a long leash where people are not bound by rules or pre-conditions. If anything, they need to be told that the only thing not acceptable is following a known path. They need to explore without boundaries in these innovation projects.

Another important point is the freedom to observe how their customers use their products and when I say observe - I mean as a full time activity and without judging or even being seen by the customers. This knowledge will go a long way in understanding the areas of improvement and where innovation is required. The ability to empathise with your customer and see the product from a customer's eyes is the best gift that your team possess and if they act on that basis, success is not far away.

So - all this sounds so obvious that you may be wondering why I am highlighting these points. Well - frankly - even though these are obvious, it is amazing how people keep forgetting these simple but effective points. So the next time you are planning that offsite to come up with the next generation product design - think - have you looked at it from your customer's point of view? Would he appreciate the features that you are planning to add? If you are not sure, first observe from a customer perspective and walk in his shoes before undertaking the offsite - It will make it more productive and useful!!!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sustain Innovation

"So how do I ensure that innovation is continuously looked at by my staff on a 24*7 basis and in each of their activities?. How do I make them enjoy it and become second nature to them?" This was the question posed to me recently. We were discussing about how innovation projects were well received and participated during the initial days but of late the interest seems to be waning.

Frankly this is quite a common occurence in many organisations. Most of them enthusiastically start off with innovation and promote the initial projects but very soon the interest dies down. So much so that it looks like a flavour of the season or a fad rather than a long term strategy or vision. The reasons for this are many but thankfully there are a few things you can do to change this perception:

  1. Invest in a innovation technology platform - This sends out a clear message to the employee base that the company is serious about innovation and it is not a one off effort but they are in it for the long term. The technology platform will enable them to track the response and take corrective action if needed. It will also encourage others to participate and help institutionalise it.

  2. Ensure that the top management gives consistent messages regarding innovation - Monitor the signals being emitted from the top management or leadership team. They need to support innovation in all their actions and be consistent. This could be the weakest link if not controlled. Remember all the action of the top management/leaders are being observed by the staff and actions speak louder than words. If you mess up with this, staff would be quick to retreat back to their shell and then it is going to be a struggle to get them back.

  3. Encourage all bold attempts even if it results in failure - An innovation project is not like your typical project since the chances of failure are pretty high. Statistics show that only 30% of innovation projects are successful but the good news is that the 30% of success will make up for all the money spent on failures. So it is still worthwhile to search for success even when you don't get it first. Important thing is to learn from failures and not repeat mistakes. Apart from that, encourage and even reward bold attempts. Nobody remembers the number of failed attempts that Edison had before he discovered the electric bulb but the discovery of the electric bulb made Edison amongst the best known inventors.

  4. Have minimal rules and make it easy for even the junior most staff to contribute - Have no entry barriers and design your innovation platform in such a way that contributions can be done very easily. Also respect and encourage everybody to participate whether that is a recently joined intern or a seasoned professional. Over a period of time, this will also become a channel to identify the staff with potential and also mentor upcoming resources.

  5. Ensure that the best ideas are implemented quickly and with no political interference - End of the day - this is the ultimate goal. Once you identify an idea which has the potential, take the ownership of implementing this quickly and ensure that the rewards are passed on to the contributor. When this is done consistently this will spread and soon all the employees will aspire to get recognised in this platform.

These are the main points that I feel will help you to sustain interest in your innovation projects. While this does take some effort to institutionalise, the returns will be manifold as it spreads throughout your organisation and the quality of the contributions improve. Over a period of time, this platform will be self-sustaining and could even give your company a competitive advantage.

In summary, sustaining innovation projects takes time and unfortunately there is no short cut but the good news is that with the small steps outlined above, it can go a long way in making innovation the bloodline of any organisation.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Innovation and You

So what stops us from being innovative? I was observing my 3 year old son as he went about his daily activities and found most of the answers. As small kids, there are no rules defined and exploring means that in the true sense of the world. There are no assumptions apart from the high level ones concerning safety and kids truly revel in this and are at their innovative best. So what happens after that? As we grow older, we become more conscious about ourselves and try our best to "fit" in with the society around us and unfortunately that also means that we become accustomed more and more to play by rules and stop challenging assumptions.

This becomes very more institutionalised in our professional lives where we have clearly defined job responsibilities which are according to our professional qualifications. But is that truly our strength? Have we ever got a chance to explore other areas which are reportedly not our traditional "strengths"? The answer is frankly NO. In fact we are discouraged from doing this at work.

I was reading an article recently about a person had done his doctorate in archaeology and spend a lot of time exploring excavations in Egypt and then one day decided to do something new. He tried his hand at statistics using his knowledge of data analysis and mapping which he used during his days as an archaelogist and today he is employed in a software company using his skills to crunch data and generate new search patterns. That to me is an example of the true potential or strength of the human mind and a strong reason why we should not stereotype people. But how often does this happen and if it does happen, is it just by chance? Is there any institutionalised way of encouraging this within your organisation? Think about this.

So you may ask, what is this go to do with innovation? Innovation to me is a new way of looking at things and trying out ideas. The best way to kickstart innovation is to bring a new set of experts (maybe from different diverse fields) and ask them to approach the problem. You will find that they are able to think with a newly found freedom which their peers working on this problem for ages were lacking.

But this is still only half the story. The picture is truly completed only if the leadership team who are evaluating these innovations are also able to break their shackles and think with the same innocence as that of a child - basically no boundaries and with no pre-defined assumptions. This is truly a challenge especially in the initial days since we are so conditioned with think with our pre-defined assumptions that we will find it easier to shoot down proposals rather than think differently about how to make it work.

But if we fight the temptation to resist and truly think differently, success is only a few steps away and as they say - nothing succeeds like success.

So in summary - don't attempt to stereotype your employees and encourage them to try out different areas and realise their true potential. Also get new set of eyes looking at old problems and encourage new thoughts and ideas. Over a period of time, this will get you truly innovative ideas and you will be surprised at the true potential of your employees once they are truly allowed to break free.
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