There’s a lot of discussion about what makes a more innovative organization. You’ve seen some of it within our articles and they tend to include some significant cultural attributes. Cultural changes can be a long involved process and you may not be ready to embark on a complete corporate overhaul before attempting to get some results. You can and should begin to make a difference one project at a time. You’ve likely already identified specific projects you need to succeed with to remain competitive. Any of these projects that involve doing something different than you have in the past require the need to be innovative. Use one or more of these to help get you started down the path of evolving your organization.
Although you don’t need to have changed the culture within your entire organization, you should have a commitment from executive management to engendering a learning organization demonstrating trust and tolerance for productive failure. If this commitment exists then, rather than “boiling the ocean” and waiting for the result of tackling the complete organizational overhaul, focus on a problem at hand and look at how you can improve its chance of success. With this focus you can attack a meaningful problem and then generalize and extend what you learn rather than trying to design an innovative organization from scratch without ever getting a chance to test your changes. When done correctly, this approach of “just getting on with it” is similar to using the concept of a Minimum Viable Product as a mechanism for rapid learning, allowing you to pivot and improve your approach as you go. In this way you can apply the tools of innovation to change your own organization.
Focus on Execution to Understand How Your Organization Can Get in Its Own Way
Innovation commonly fails in execution. Lots of ideas are typically available for investment but for a variety of reasons, you either cannot get started, start off on such poor footing that you are doomed to failure, or fail to execute on a plan that could and should succeed. This last issue is common and presents a great opportunity for organizational improvement with a little forethought. We will assume for this discussion that you have worked through an idea to the point where you have a rough outline of an execution plan for a project that has value to you. By rough outline, I mean you have a pretty good idea of what the product or service should look like and whom it is targeting (I am assuming a product development activity rather than some other innovation effort for simplicity of discussion).
The cross-functional development team should use a tool such as the Innovation Value Canvas to explore the key uncertainties and Critical-To-Value™ elements (CTVs) of the project plan necessary to achieve the value proposition for the company and the customer.
The performance of these Critical-To-Value elements of your plan should be evaluated in the context of the company’s capabilities, as we outline in a prior article. This can be facilitated by using something like the Star Model proposed by Galbraith for organizational design as an evaluation tool for the Strategy, Structure, Skills, Processes and Reward Systems that currently exist within the organization. This is the start of some of the introspection I have referenced in this and previous articles.
Evaluate Critical-To-Value Elements to Uncover Gaps
This evaluation of the CTVs of the plan in the context of the existing organizational characteristics and capabilities allows you to uncover gaps which must be addressed or adequately planned around but not simply ignored in the hopes that things will somehow work differently this time. This gap analysis can uncover issues as simple as:
- A critical timeline around a technical development that will involve the need for rapid iteration through multiple designs but will likely be hindered by a purchasing process that requires significant vendor qualification and does not distinguish between manufacturing and development feasibility objectives.
- The same timeline will be shattered by a non-agile development process that requires extensive documentation and testing of each prototype even if they are designed to be tossed after a single purpose learning objective.
- A critical skill set that does not yet exist in the organization and should be hired in rather than trained in. However, the ability to mobilize HR to hire this type of skill set has been problematic in the past and in fact there has been no demonstrated fast tracking of such a hiring process (which should probably involve more active engagement from the hiring organization needing the critical skill).
- The fact that the product will require significant customization on purchase and your organization is a functional matrix in which the manufacturing incentives of reducing inventory conflicts with commercial incentives for reducing quote to cash timeframes and the customer’s expectation of reasonable delivery times. The only solution to meet the customer value proposition is by setting up a Just-In-Time manufacturing process which does not yet exist or adding significant inventory levels of work-in-process to allow for rapid customization and delivery.
- Early phase timelines are compressed and unlikely to be achieved because the hand-off to manufacturing always takes longer than planned yet resources from manufacturing aren’t typically freed up early enough to fully engage in the design for manufacturing activities that would smooth this transfer.
- You must remove a critical uncertainty in the customer value proposition and go-to-market strategy before you can settle on a final design. The fastest and most effective way to achieve this is to deliver a minimum viable product to the market which you fully intend to replace with your final product but you have no mechanism to do this in an expedited fashion.
There are innumerable examples of such barriers that can inhibit effective innovation. Quite often your organization is successful at many things and its processes, structure, skills and rewards are put in place to support this. When you try to do something new it bumps up against the optimized organization designed around what you already know how to do. You can either work around it as a one off and a test of how you might want to change things or you can decide that this is going to be a common problem going forward and make the permanent changes necessary to support future projects.
The one thing you cannot do is ignore the gaps and expect the plan to succeed anyway. Unfortunately, this approach is all too common and a big reason why many projects fail in execution.
Be pro-active; don’t wait to learn from a retrospective project review to discover why you fail. Go ahead and evaluate the plan in advance. If you do this and act on your discoveries, you will be much more likely to succeed and you will have engaged in your first organizational learning experience. You can then decide whether to more broadly implement your project specific gap filling solutions or some modification of them throughout the organization. “Mind the Gap(s)” before you step in them and take your first step to becoming a learning organization and improving your innovative capability.