It doesn’t exist, but let’s try anyways…
Let’s begin with some stark facts about today’s corporate innovation efforts:
In other words, the deck is stacked against successful innovation. And yet, many companies are still thriving. So how do you improve your odds of successfully bringing new innovations to market?
There are undoubtedly hundreds of specific recommendations that one could offer here to advance successful innovation efforts within your company. What’s more, no two companies are going to be the same, and each will have their own idiosyncrasies that will mean different levels of effectiveness for the same strategy. I do not pretend to suggest that the below is a comprehensive list.
Instead, I’ve left the low-hanging fruit for the dozens of other innovation-related articles, and tried to instead distill the critical factors that I feel are usually missing from the conversation.
If you’re trying to get good at something, it helps to define out what it is. The same is true of innovation. Many organizations set out on the journey to build innovation capacity by stating something to the effect of, “We want to become better at innovation.” But what exactly does that mean?
The problem is that innovation is an immeasurably broad term. It generally conveys something positive, but what specifically it implies is not clear, and will be very different across companies and industries. What’s more, if different people inside the company have a different definition in their minds about what they mean by innovation, the organization can easily get pulled in many different directions.
As such, it’s important to think about innovation in much finer-grained ways in order to make it useful: Are you looking to create new products and services from scratch? Looking to productize offerings you currently sell in new ways that can escape the commoditization of your current suite of services? Or maybe it’s a new business model you seek, pivoting an existing line of B2B business to B2C? Be explicit, be clear, and be aligned cross the company as to how you define your innovation system.
The goal here is for the entire organization to be singing from the same sheet of music, marching in lockstep toward a common and agreed upon innovation strategy.
Kill Projects Early & Often
We’ve all seen it: the middle manager pet projects that aren’t going anywhere and yet continue to soak up funding, resources, and time despite a total lack of innovation or path forward; the “we thought this was a good idea but it turns out that it’s not but we don’t want to kill it because then it makes it look like we failed” projects.
This is no way to run a successful company long-term. Rather than try to “run out the clock” on your unsuccessful innovation efforts, why not embrace them? As Ray Dalio writes in Principles, “Create a culture in which it is okay to make mistakes and unacceptable not to learn from them.”
At places like Google X, failures are publicly celebrated, and project managers are actually promoted for making the tough decision to shut a project down and transition those resources elsewhere. Leaders wonder why bureaucratic bloat proliferates as the company grows; not killing project, instead letting them fester, is one of the major reasons why.
If you want to be successful in the corporate innovation space, kill projects early and kill them often. Set a series of stage gates or measurable goals for new initiatives to achieve, and if they fail to reach them, be ruthless in prioritizing resources to those initiatives that have a great chance of success.
Forget Your History
Counterintuitively, companies with a great historical track record of innovation are often the ones most at risk of sudden decline. Why?
Because they’re unwilling to forget their history — what made the company successful to that point is almost never the same as what will move the company forward. The vast majority of companies maintain such rigid mental and operating models that they are incapable of and unwilling to try something new.
Instead, they invest the bulk of their time and their resources in pursuit of the 1% incremental gain on their successful product or service offering, and quickly lose sight of broader market trends, leaving them ripe for disruption by a new entrant.
Invest in Innovation Before You NEED It
If you begin the process of investing in new innovations when you’re on the brink, you’re already too late. Investing in innovation when you’re struggling siphons critical capital and resources away from the core business at a time when they’re desperately needed. The desperation of needing to find the next thing also leads teams to rush, skipping over critical steps like prototyping and market testing, leading to crummy products and services that customers hate. More to the point, innovation is an inherently slow burn effort, and expecting that you can just flip the innovation switch on and cook up something magical is naive in the least.
Rather, it’s essential to invest in innovation when times are good and the business is moving along swimmingly. Financially, in these situations, cash flow is good and profits are high, and therefore there’s less scrutiny put to investing in innovation teams and efforts that, at least in the short, term are primarily cost centers. What’s more, the statistic cited above calls out that most markets flatline in seven years, and new VC-backed, user-obsessed market players are entering legacy industries every month. Times may be good today, but it’s almost assured that they won’t stay that way. Companies that will succeed in the future are those that can continually reinvent and reinvigorate their offerings in new ways. The only way to do this is to invest in innovation before it feels like it’s absolutely needed.
Over-generate GOOD Ideas
It’s one thing to suggest that companies need to generate more ideas, period. And this is true. But it falls short of being actionable. Rather, what companies need to do is not just generate more ideas, but more AND better ideas. Sounds simple right? But how the hell does one actually go about that? To do this requires a challenging balance of top-down and bottom-up innovation efforts.
For a successful case study in bottom-up, look no further than the case of Adobe’s Kickbox program. The philosophy behind Kickbox is simple: The most creative people lurking inside Adobe might not want to deal with the bureaucracy of pitching what could become the company’s next hit product. So Kickbox is built to be an all-in-one package to enabling anyone to prototype, test, and iterate her concept with as little corporate overhead as possible. To date, 1,000 employees at Adobe have cracked open a Kickbox. And 23 have seen their ideas graduate to receiving more investment from senior management. The whole idea is to empower anyone within the organization to create and test a new idea, democratizing design & innovation for the masses. But while the program has been a success from a culture, it’s yet to result in any major step changes for Adobe’s business.
Criticism of the program centers around its lack of a top-down direction; Kickboxers, as they’re called, are free to pursue any idea that comes to mind, without any consideration of Adobe’s brand, customers, or core capabilities. Here’s where we see exactly how top-down and bottom-up approaches to innovation can gel together. While the democratization of design & innovation methodologies is noble, company leadership would find far greater value in the new products and services being developed if they were aligned with the company’s future vision and direction. By simply clarifying this to participants from the start, offering these insights as something of a constraint to the new product development process, Adobe would not only generate more ideas, but better ideas.