Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Don’t invest in ideas, invest in people with ideas 2 – enabling creativity and innovation throughout your organization 1

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 24, 2014

This is my second installment in a series on cultivating and supporting innovation and its potential in a business, by cultivating and supporting the creative and innovative potential and the innovative drive of your employees and managers, and throughout your organization (see Part 1.)

I have written a number of times in this blog and through a succession of series, on developing and maintaining innovative systems and overall organizational processes that would more systematically facilitate innovators and innovation. And as noted in Part 1 of this series, my focus here is on the innovators themselves as they would enter into and participate in this. And I begin that from the fundamentals, and with what for some might be seen as uncomfortable truths:

• Innovation is desirable and most businesses and organizations like to think of themselves as being innovative and competitively creative in their industries and markets.
• But innovation – real innovation as opposed to more cosmetic change is disruptive and it can be risky and that means it can be scary.
• Innovators challenge the status quo. They seek to offer even radically new ways of seeing and addressing their business’ current here-and-now and they offer break-away alternatives to what might be stable if perhaps routine tried and true; there is a reason why real innovation is called disruptive and few business managers or owners automatically find it comfortable to see things disrupted – and even when there might be a significant payoff from that at some future date.

And when a business does successfully work their way through these concerns and seeks to be truly innovative with risk acceptance and budget and other resource allocations to match, they at least potentially face another bottleneck challenge.

• Innovation and developing those initial ideas into realizable, marketable, competitively profitable products and services is not a matter of having a small group of innovators and everyone else who take on more routine positions and responsibilities. Full innovative potential cannot be reached if it is walled off and localized and controlled as to who can and cannot participate.
• Open innovation requires wider participation and the open eyed acceptance of the simple fact that a next great idea can come from anyone in an organization.
• Open innovation, and bringing those great new ideas that do emerge to fruition means enlisting many into their development and refinement processes. Even when just one or a few employees seem to come up with most of the best new innovative starting point ideas for improving and for evolving a product line for example, many can and should be involved in creatively developing those ideas and refining them. And many can contribute to streamlining and improving the processes that would go into development and production of marketable offerings from them.
• It is important to note here that the people who work hands-on in an area of business activity and task completion are the most likely to see opportunity and method for improvement in their specific hands-on phases of this. That holds for development of that original innovative conception. It holds for all of the people and positions at that business that this idea is going to impact upon in their work. And it definitely holds for everyone there who is in a position to help shape and improve its marketable realization.
• So this posting and this series as a whole are all about building for innovation and the acceptance of it, with all of its costs and risks and it is about building capacity for this into the core of a business, and into its business model and its business culture.

And as I noted above, innovation is scary – stepping into the new and untried and untested is scary. So this series as a whole is also about thinking through and understanding and more rationally addressing cause for concern, and cause for positive expectations too as a risk and benefits management exercise. But I start here with the people who would participate in all of this activity. And in that I start with what is at least ostensibly the simplest case: the lone innovator who sees opportunity and means for improvement in a process or practice that they use in competing one of their recurring task requirements as a part of their basic job description.

I offered an earlier series on larger scale ongoing research and development capabilities and on building and managing an organizational system for fostering and promoting innovative potential with Keeping Innovation Fresh (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 241 and loosely following for its Parts 1-16.) But in many if not most cases, taking recourse to that type of, what in this context would seem a quite-bureaucratic process, makes no sense and certainly as a starting point. If a hands-on member of a manager’s team comes up with an idea for improving the quality or pace of their work in meeting their specific task requirements, this is something that in general would be handled by them and that manager, and with input from that manager’s own manager if and as required in obtaining approval to change ongoing business processes. Now let’s consider some complications:

• This employee is one of several or even many who carry out essentially this same work process that might be improved upon. Suddenly any such change if validated as effective, holds readily significant potential for positively impacting upon this business as a whole. And for more significant innovations that can even at least potentially mean impacting on the business’ overall top and bottom lines too.
• Certainly in that case, any innovation testing and incorporation into ongoing practice that is initially carried through upon by this one innovator employee and their manager should be considered and managed as a prototyping initiative. And with that, validation also of necessity has as one of its goals further testing to see if this innovation is scalable and readily transferrable to others, testing whether it would be appropriate for more expanded use and even for incorporation into basic ongoing practices as a new workplace process standard. See my two part series: Management and Strategy by Prototyping at Business Strategy and Operations, postings 124 and 126 for a brief summary of some of the core issues that enter into this. Prototyping per se is one of the most agile and powerful tools a business can use in becoming and staying effectively competitive.
• And in this case it might very well be necessary to champion this proposed innovation through a more formal structure such as the transition committee approach that I outline in my Keeping Innovation Fresh series. See its Part 7 for a basic outline of what an innovation transition committee is and how it functions, and Part 8 for a brief discussion of how this type of resource can be functionally built into an overall business system.

Now let’s complicate this overall discussion from a second direction.

• Let’s assume that an insightful hands-on specialist finds a way to effectively complete a task with reduced error rate and in a fraction of the time that would normally have been needed, reducing it from a four or even five days to just one day. And their results of this effort are then passed on to other workers who use them as a starting point resource in their own work. This new efficiency is not going to lead to any increased value if these next-steps cannot be or simply are not speeded up to match, in effect shifting one bottleneck in a larger ongoing process from one step to a next and from one employee or group of them to another.
• My point here is very simple; one new innovation when properly positioned in a business’s overall processes and operations can create compelling need for a cascade of further innovative refinement and change downstream from it if any real value is to be realized from it. And this can take higher level managerial input and approval as further innovations are thought through and tested and even entire work process flows are improved upon and evolved. Simply creatively innovating is not and cannot be enough. A ways has to be found and implemented to make effective use of it. This scenario represents a second situation where a more organized gatekeeper/innovation championing resource such as an innovation transition committee might offer value, as well as at least active support from this business’ executive leadership. I stress the word “might” there.

And to add to this list let’s consider a third potentially complicating scenario as well: innovation in the context of regulatory law and other enforced operation standardization requirements

• If a business process cannot be changed without outside regulatory or other formal approval, this automatically means that change there cannot simply be negotiated between a hands-on specialist and their manager, if it can be agreed to at all. And it is probably not going to be possible to manage and agree to this entirely within this business either. So that is not the situation that I write of here. Instead, I focus here on situations where a process change that is not specifically regulated itself, might impact on others that are. A number of potential examples from the financial and investment industries come to mind for me here, and particularly where impact might be on legally mandated and regulated business processes involving data security and confidentiality, and in any scenario of that type this proposed change would in most cases require input and approval from corporate legal counsel as an essential early stage due diligence exercise.

So even in this seemingly simplest case of working with a “lone innovator,” actual circumstances, needs and operational requirements might prove to be anything but simple. And fear of complications and of need to adjust in the face of these and other potential challenges lead to the types of concerns that I wrote of at the top of this installment. That is where innovation can be risky and even be seen as a bit scary and it is where effective risk management processes enter this narrative too, and the analysis and determination of at least predictable risk and benefits issues.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will look at innovations and innovators who offer potential that would automatically and of necessity impact beyond their own work and the work of their functional teams that they participate in. That means innovation that goes beyond simply developing new work processes that at least at first glance might seem more internal to the company for action and impact, overtly affecting the business as a whole. That, in anticipation of discussion to come, can mean fundamental innovation in the marketable products or services offered by this business, or in how they are produced and brought to market, or it can mean fundamental and far-reaching innovative change in more back-office and internal business processes that would behind the scenes make this business stronger, more agile and more competitive and that start out showing widespread impact. And after that I will switch from discussing this complex of issues from more of a lone initial innovator perspective, to that of a self-assembling innovative team perspective. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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