Apr 112011

Woman performing marketing tasksEditors’s note: This is the third of a series five articles about leading innovation by Dr. Bacon in Wisepreneur.

For years, management books have suggested that all managers have four basic functions: Leading, Organizing, Planning, and Controlling[1]. Sometimes when organizations begin down the path to new innovation, they seem to forget that innovation needs management too. Often great ideas come from front-line employees, but sometimes the ideas may miss the mark. It is important to remember that random ideas generate random results. Innovation leaders must direct individuals to focus their innovation efforts where they are likely to have the most positive organizational impact. Here are some areas in which an innovation leader might check to see if innovation projects are going in the right direction:

Focus innovation efforts to underserved segments of the market.
Innovation in existing market segments is important to maintain or grow existing customer relationship, however a bigger effect might come from directing innovation efforts to underserved segments of the market. Once leadership recognizes a market opportunity, innovation should be driven by measurable results. As Tom Kelley says, “Hot project teams start with a clear goal and a serious deadline[2].”

Drive the innovation pipeline through new technology, new training, new infrastructure, coaching, and rewards.
Innovation processes are essentially like other improvement processes in that performance should increase as long as the innovation process is maintained. Yet organizations that emphasize growth, maintaining the existing process may not be sufficient to reach the organizational goals. One way to accelerate growth is to innovate the innovation process. Innovating training methods, ways of doing innovation (technology) and innovation support systems enable people to innovate quicker and with insight. Leaders who are serious about growth should consider innovating the innovation process before moving forward with new innovation projects. Improvements in the innovation process (or any process) become institutionalized through new training, new infrastructure, coaching and rewards.

Create a system of responsibility and accountability for innovation through out every level of the organization.
Within the innovation system, individuals may have differing roles and responsibilities. Each person must know and understand what their role is and then they should be held accountable for innovation activities. The biggest part of accountability is reporting progress. Progress should be reported widely to help create an innovation culture and to help other employees understand how the process works. A transparent system also increases an open discussion and trust.

Encourage innovation efforts at the lowest levels of the organization.
Some companies have a dedicated group who are responsible for innovation such as R&D or engineering. The assumption is that this group of innovation experts is better equipped to solve innovation challenges than others or maybe the individuals in those groups are smarter than others and therefore will produce better innovation results. But this may not be the case. As stated by Jacqueline Byrd and Paul Lockwood Brown, “…let’s not confuse originality with intelligence. People often assume that originality and intelligence are correlated. There is little evidence to support this assumption[3].”

Track innovation in four key areas: Leadership, Organizational Culture, Process, and Skills.
The only way to reach high innovation performance is to infuse innovation into every aspect of the organization. At its core, an organization reflects its leadership, culture, processes, and skills. Tracking these areas of the organization provides a way to see if the organization is really committed to innovation and if the organization’s innovation capacity is growing or not. The individuals in an organization always take their cues from the organization’s leader so above all others, tracking lead involvement in innovation is key. Organizations may expect that managers will quickly accept an innovation culture, but evidence points to the contrary. Research shows that managers tend to be risk adverse[4] while high-performing organizations require some management to set high expectations and to take on higher levels of risk[5].

Expect continuous innovation even when other issues seem more important.
Dynamic organizations often have issues that arise that are urgent and need immediate attention however it is important to continue innovation efforts even when other matters seem pressing. Innovation leaders should keep in mind that some of the biggest innovation challenges take a long time to solve. Sometimes those are the very challenges that offer the greatest returns. Individuals and teams should have sufficient time each week or each month to work on long-term challenges. Another reason to innovate continuously is that it helps to create an innovative organizational culture. When people have innovation activities as part of their routine, they quickly understand the importance to the organization.

Of these five areas that need direction, probably assigning responsibility and accountability is the most difficult. Why? Because it is personal and because it takes time. When developing the innovation capacity of an organization, one must remember that only individuals actually have ideas. There is no such thing as a “group brain”. Therefore at some point ideation and innovation require management of individual outcomes.


About the Author:
Calvin Bacon is the Director of Creative Services at Wisepreneur.com. His areas of interest include idea generation and innovation management. ©Calvin M. Bacon, Jr. 2011

[1] Contemporary Management, Gareth R. Jones, Jennifer M. George, & Charles W.L. Hill,  2007, Irwin/McGraw Hill.

[2] The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley, 2001, Random House, New York.

[3] The Innovation Equation, Jacqueline Byrd & Paul Lockwood Brown, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, San Francisco.

[4] Risk Taking: A managerial perspective, Z. Shapira, 1995. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.

[5] Highwire Management, G. Calvert, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

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