There are many names for the Innovation Management function in professional service firms. It can be identified as new business development or quality improvement, or hidden in the marketing department. How to make sure the innovation function—whatever it is called—enables innovation to thrive in your organization?
How to thrive with innovation
Although you may think that making innovation thrive in your organization is the goal of an innovation unit, it is not. Innovation is a means to an end, not the goal in itself. The objective of the innovation management function is therefore not to help innovation thrive for its own sake, but to help the organization thrive by achieving its strategic objectives.
Your task is to make sure that all the buzz around a new idea leads to the expected and desirable outcomes that will give the organization its competitive edge now and in the future.
Creating buzz around innovation is the easy part. With a little encouragement, professionals will launch many projects and initiatives, soon overwhelming the organization. Then, as professionals each have their own specialty, are operating autonomously, and in decentralized units, overseeing or cutting projects will not be an easy task.
When innovation happens ad hoc—as it does in most professional service organizations—it cannot fulfill a strategic intent because there is no guarantee the right projects will be carried out. Hence managing this uncontrollable crowd is the real challenge of the innovation management function in professional service firms.
How to set yourself up for success? Below are some dos and don’ts.
- The creation of many ideas.
- A process for validating ideas. You want to make sure everyone is working on the right problems and the best solutions.
- Making connections, team building and finding external collaborators.
- Teach the innovation process to your professionals. They are the ones who understand the complexities of their work, but they are not trained to innovate. They therefore have a limited understanding of all the work that needs to be done to transform ideas into valuable service offerings.
- Provide innovators with a (self-help) guide to make sure they work on the right problems and the best solutions. It will help you a great deal if your innovators eliminate their own projects through a process of natural selection, where only the best trained and hardest working proceed and succeed. To quote Ed Catmull of Pixar: “If you give a stupid idea to a great team, they will make it a success; give a great idea to a not-so-smart team, and it will fail.” It is of utmost importance that you make sure that your teams consist of the best trained, hardest working and smartest innovators.
- Use external input and feedback to guide your development process. User feedback is a great tool to know whether you are on the right track.
- Being connected to the right people at the right time will ensure that the innovation can take off when ready. Developing successful innovations is not just a matter of having a great idea.
- Install an idea box without follow-up
- Consider what you are going to do with all the input before putting up an idea box, or any other idea-generation mechanism. Idea boxes and campaigns set expectations among participants that you may not be able to meet.
- Trying to control professionals is like herding cats. If you are interested, there is a very funny YouTube video that shows cowboys herding cats. You will agree that it is easier and much better to avoid trying to do this at work, especially since professionals are used to operating autonomously and have a strong interest in doing the right thing. So instead of trying to control them, it is much more productive to have a process that ensures that they can work as they do best, autonomously, on the right problem and the best solutions.
- The reach of the Innovation Management function will be limited when it is tasked to innovate, and much more productive when charged with facilitiating innovation. Professions are highly specialized, so innovating on behalf of a professional requires you to obtain in-depth knowledge of their particular discipline. It can be done, but it is time- and resource-intensive, so at best you as an innovation manager can only help a few. Instead, if you teach professionals to innovate, use project management to follow their progress, and provide support in the areas where they lack expertise, you can leverage your value much more effectively and help many more.
- Oftentimes, teams you coach will engage in activities you find frustrating, move too slowly, or skip necessary steps. Clearly nobody wants to micromanage, yet it is all too easy to fall in this trap. You want to make sure each team is working on the right problem and best solutions, but trying to keep them on your path is exhausting and frustrating. It is important to remember that teams have an even higher incentive than you, the innovation manager, to get it right instead of plowing through. So long as they have the information they need, and are working on verifying assumptions, give them a little leeway to figure things out, make mistakes, and learn. Focusing on facilitiating the process, instead of trying to prevent any possible mis-steps, will result in much healthier and less strenuous relationships.
Interested in getting your innovation management function up and running, or in increasing its effectiveness and efficiency? Please feel free to contact us at info”at”organizing4innovation or visit our website at www.organizing4innovation.com to learn more.