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Can You Really Plan Innovation? No, Really?

May 4, 2010

Steve Jobs –  the man who made the letter ‘i’ the coolest one in the alphabet, said that trying to build a business process for innovation was like ‘watching Michael Dell – trying to dance.Painful‘. So, not being averse to embarrassing dance moves myself, I spent a day last week with some top innovation consultants at Henley Business School, discussing how to make businesses well, err, more err, innovative. So, can people and companies really learn to be innovative or does it end up with forty-somethings trying to crowd surf at their nephews twenty-first?

This man does not like courses in innovation

Henley Business School is a rather curious and amazing seat of learning.  If you’ve ever seen old episodes of The New Avengers or The Professionals – where they feature some mysterious 1970’s military research establishment that is always based  in a glamorous white mansion surrounded by armed guards and run by some mad scientist – well, that’s Henley.There are no Purdey’s or Steed’s – but apart from that, it is all 1970’s secretive military establishment as envisaged by Friday night super-cop television. And rather than being populated by super spys or hypnotised assassins Henley Business School now hosts some of the finest business lecturers.

With product development, digital technology and ever changing markets dominating marketing news and debates it is no wonder that the one day programme on Generating Growth Through Systematic Innovation was attended by such a big crowd. Innovation. New product development. Thinking outside the box (horrible phrase). Blue sky thinking (even more horrible phrase). Words that can excite or horrify people. Does it mean unleashing the idea virus and letting people explore bold new horizons that will take the business into a new paradigm? Or does it really mean tedious rounds of meetings, placing sticky notes on white boards, followed by horrendous business cases, a series of unreasonable deadlines and horrific internal arguments? Maybe its all these things. The day featured four leading innovation thinkers helping stir the business creativity and debate. Our host was Claire Hewit, who runs the Innovation programme of Henley’s MBA and someone who has the fantastic career claim to fame: she was part of the that invented the Pringle. She was joined by Dr Bernd Vogel, a real guru on the role of personal and organisational energy in the innovation process. Also, Andy Kitt, Director of innovation consultancy,nowhere group and Prof.David James who leads Henley’s Strategic Marketing programmes. Clearly, this is a heavy weight panel of innovation experts and they covered a wide range of topics.

For the last session of the day Hewit led us through some excellent practical creative thinking exercises which had some very interesting outcomes. Want to do it? (1) Take an interesting graphic or postcard. (2) Describe what you see. (3) Build some associative concepts and words that link to those words. (4) Relate the concepts to your business ‘breakthrough question’. Sounds a bit mad doesn’t it – but trust me, this is a very smart technique and it does help to create the ideas. Thing is though, as anyone who has worked in R&D or innovation knows, it is not the new ideas that are hard to develop. It is the implementing and the delivering that is the tricky bit. Earlier on in the day, it was the presentation by Vogel that pointed this out most clearly by focusing on how personal, team and organisational energy are the key to innovation success. With his simple matrix, he pointed out how Intensity (Y-axis) has to be balanced with Quality (X-axis). If you get it right, you can end up with Productive energy. Get it wrong and up with corrosive internal disputes or inertia. For most people in the audience it appeared that inertia was not the problem – far from it, everyone seemed to agree there was a huge enthusiasm for new product and service development. No- the biggest issue would appear to be Corrosiveness. What does this mean? Quite simply, innovation is often stuck by internal disputes, competition for resources and confusion of overall strategy. So -innovation strategy and focus has to come from the top and then filtered throughout the business. Asking individuals or departments to stimulate innovation without giving everyone the clear vision and strategy is like asking people to find their way to the end of the Central Line, but no letting them to use or look at a tube map. You may be able to get there in the end, but it will be a long, confusing, expensive and frustrating journey likely accompanied by a whole series of arguments along the way. This notion of energy was also picked up in the presentation by Kitts – who has used Vogel’s work in practical agency and consulting work. Kitts pointed out how positive innovation is associated with passion; for the work, for the team, for the subject. However – it is a very thin line between this passionate atmosphere to become aggressive. Likewise, for organisations and individuals who are in their comfort zone, to become resigned and stagnant. So how do you overcome this? According to Kitts, it is up to senior managers and leaders to properly manage this tension and the dilemmas that the innovation process will present. Which markets are we innovating in? How should resources be focused? These are dilemmas that have to be balanced and if they are not, then innovation projects can deteriorate rapidly. It is a question of balancing the creative process, devising the new and the progressive, with the operational: what can be done, how it can be made, the practical realities. The role of  ‘outside-in’ thinking within the innovation process was stressed by James. Clearly not a fan of large corporates, he stressed how many large businesses think more about their internal processes than the consumer – and that the thing they do best, is to manage themselves, under existing business rules, rather than invent new ways of doing things. So what are the main lessons I picked up from the day? And can large organisations be creative? On the last point,well clearly yes. Apple, Sony, Mazda, Dyson. Large organisations that continue to challenge, launch new products, explore new markets.It can be done. Can it be adopted quickly? I don’t think so. An innovative approach has to extend from senior management vision and passion and all areas of the business must be focused on the prize. As Kitts called it ‘ finding the Princess to rescue’. Something, some product, some idea that can unite everyone. Interestingly last week I met a colleague who used to work at Apple and I asked him what it was like. The single message I picked up was that when Apple went into development and launch mode it was something the entire organisation supported.i.e. innovation is not just owned by the engineers or the marketers or the accountants. It is owned by everyone.

So – innovation is a challenge. It can create ‘corrosive energy’. It can lead to ‘aggression’. But it is not something that can be ignored either. I am sure nobody wants to be the mad Uncle dancing at the teenagers party, trying a bit too hard to be hip. Bringing out me-too products, trying to hard to stretch the brand and not paying attending to consumer delight. But if the organisation is moving forward properly then it can create its own party, its own dance. Hewit pointed out that to get innovations, you have to combine ‘divergent thinking’ (looking outside and exploring the new) – with ‘divergent thinking’ (bringing things together, focusing the ideas). As for Steve Jobs, I am sure he would hate Henley and a one day course in innovation. ‘No – we don’t think about being innovative’ – Steve Jobs. He is far too busy running an innovative company to worry about thinking how and why his business is innovative.

One Comment
  1. I would appreciate more visual materials, to make your blog more attractive, but your writing style really compensates it. But there is always place for improvement

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