How does a company "mess up" doing innovation?

I got this question just the other day from a company that's just starting their innovation journey. Q.  How does a company "mess up" doing innovation? oops A.  To truly “mess up” doing innovation would simply be to not do innovation at all.  If you’re doing something, anything at all - you’ve at least taken the first step of acknowledging how critical it is. 

That said, there are certainly some common mis-steps that can undermine your progress:

Mis-step: Doing a big training and hoping a miracle will occur.

Without structures, systems, processes and support - the training simply doesn’t stick...no matter how clever the content.

Mis-step: Asking employees for ideas and not giving them a system to process them.

The funny thing about ideas is, there’s no shortage of them.  And if you’ve never asked for them before, be ready for a firehose of all kinds of ideas - ones you want and ones you didn’t even know existed.  But as soon as you get them, if you don’t do something with them soon - or better yet, enable employees with a system to do something with them themselves - you’ll be left with a workforce that was excited at the start but is now pretty disgruntled.  Organizations can usually get away with this once, maybe twice, before employees start to revolt.

Mis-step: Approaching Innovation as a “Nice to Do” and not a “MUST do.”

Business life cycles are crushing industries.  Where years ago it took a very long time - years, decades even - for an industry to change, today’s timeline is extremely short.  In every category and business, a new way of working, a new competitor on the market, an industry-sweeping change...any and all of them can have massive effects on the business you assume you can keep.  Study after study cites the same - if you want to retain employees, earn money, stay competitive and keep the doors open - you must innovate.

On the upside, there’s never been a better time to innovate.  There are more systems for testing and learning today than there have ever been in the past.  Customers are savvier, technology is revolutionary and the communication systems today means the concept of “export” is no longer a far away dream.

Mis-step: Creating a special Innovation Department.

As soon as a company goes through the “Innovation Awakening” - realizing that this innovation thing is probably something they should do something about - the first step seems to always be appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (or Innovation Manager, director, etc.) and assign them an innovation team to “do innovation.”

While accountability is a good thing, innovation should not be a silo’ed effort reserved only for a chosen few.  Companies that do innovation well, do innovation in EVERYTHING - in the way they work every project, in the way they interact without silos, in the way they move quickly, in the way they run experiments, in the exploration and collaboration they use.  Said another way, innovation should be for everyone in the organization - not a select few.  Why should they have all the fun?  

That said, creating a group that does work on special projects and has a mastery-level of skills is a great thing.  We call those folks Innovation Engineering Black Belts, and they work on high profile innovation projects - and spend the remainder of their time coaching others in the organization to accelerate their projects using Innovation Engineering.

Mis-step:  Thinking you have plenty of time to figure out how you’ll approach innovation.

Once the organization is aware that someone is actively working on innovation, there is a real and tangible window for making it real.  Taking swift action to get an innovation process in place is a great thing to demonstrate action.  However, if you don’t demonstrate SUCCESS with that action - in 100 days or less - most organizations will assume it just doesn’t work.  And the next time you try, convincing them to believe it will work will be 10 times harder.

When we start working with large companies, we often start with an Project Accelerator to demonstrate how the system works. This involves doing a live project immediately - within days of signing an agreement.  In 100 days or less we’ll show success with the project such that 1) it serves as a great pilot to see how Innovation Engineering works and 2) it serves as a great internal case study to show those inside that it does work.

With smaller companies we start by accelerating existing projects to let them see the pace of the system and how it works.  They see and feel how Innovation Engineering compares to the work processes they’re used to.

Mis-step:  Designing your “innovation strategy and plan” in a PowerPoint deck before you even start.

Imagine this.  You’ve never ridden a bike before - ever.  Someone demands that you ride it perfectly the first time you get on.  You’re allowed to read as many books as you want about it - can google about it - can ask others for tips - but you CANNOT get on a bike or try it before the big debut.  Ridiculous, right?

It’s the same with innovation.  You cannot expect to put together a great process on the back of a napkin and then just hold a training session, roll it out and wait for your organization to innovate like Apple the next day.  

Even with all of our experience, we have a fantastic template for getting started that includes training, support, systems, coaching and even consulting to adjust the system to your unique company and needs.  But we do it through live Learning Cycles to get smarter through experience and practice - fail fast, fail cheap.