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The leader’s guide to making innovation everyone’s job

By Jeffrey Tobias

Innovation strategies eventually turn from blue-sky ideas to “how will we do this?”

Lofty notions of innovation tend to come unstuck when faced with realities on the ground. While senior management and innovation specialists can dream of a bright future, living with day-to-day constraints leaves little time for the line-of-business to focus on innovation in its own right.

In a Forbes article, Silicon Valley maven Steve Blank looks at making lean innovation management work in a corporate setting.

He lays out three innovation ‘horizons’ in the enterprise:

Horizon 1 (low risk): The day-to-day work of refining processes and other known elements while working within the core business model.

Horizon 2 (moderate risk): Pushing the existing model in new directions for fast-growing businesses.

Horizon 3 (high risk): Disruptive innovation or an emerging business model that recasts the organisation (and might sit outside traditional reporting lines).

While this is a useful framework for visualising innovation, the leader devolving action to the troops must pay careful attention to organisational and cultural factors, such as:

Inertia – Businesses get very good at what they’re doing and managers become comfortable with the pace of change. Disruption for no immediate and obvious benefit risks alienating those needed to support innovation at the coalface.

Politics and envy – Organisations are often riven by fiefdoms; even managers and staff keyed to innovation might be under those not so aligned.

Business as usual – People might mouth platitudes but innovate little.

The Business Model Canvas is a useful tool for conceptualising how to proceed with innovation given such realities. It outlines the nine key business areas from customers to partners, value propositions and revenues (check out this great video for a two-minute primer on the Business Model Canvas). This enables everyone to see how their ideas spur innovation through the enterprise.

There are also a few ways you can inspire managers at all levels to buy into innovation, such as:

Value what you measure – Tie incentives to innovation as appropriate for the level of the organisation. Those at the customer interface are rewarded for, say, improving processes that lead to higher rates of resolution at first contact.

Ban vanity metrics – Rely less on backslapping metrics such as how many ideas started and more on real business impacts like how many ideas were commercialised.

Take PR out of product – Too much innovation is a feel-good exercise to make the organisation appear “hip”. Innovate as if no one is watching and free people to try new things (even if they fail). See our story on how Google and Apple embrace failure for success.

Keeping the faith is perhaps the most difficult thing to do. Seeing ideas go nowhere discourages even the most ardent innovation leader and their champions. A way to counter this malaise is to pitch innovation into the organisation as if it were an investment in an option: it gives the business a pre-emptive right to an unspecified benefit down the track.

Innovation is a collaborative practice, driven as a holistic program of improvement and engagement throughout the business. Managed and executed well, it’s the best insurance for any organisation’s sustainability.

Want to inspire or refuel an innovation program in your organisation? The Strategy Group has experience strategising with the three horizons framework and innovating via the business model canvas.

Call (02) 9388 9925 or email for a confidential chat to plan out your innovation program.

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