The innovation playing field

The playing field of the innovation leader

To understand the political playing field of the innovation leader, I draw on the Vita Activa (see Post below) and define the innovation field by the three fundamentally different activities of a running company:

Daily business’ : the primary, circular, organic process of buying, producing, selling and buying again (‘ labor’). The energy of the ‘Daily Business’ is conservation.

Management: targets, projects, organizational structures and excellent processes (‘work’).  The energy within ‘Management’ is focused on delivery and achievement.

Innovation Initiatives: any project that is new to the company and has an uncertain outcome (‘action’). The energy of ‘Innovation Initiatives’ is the spark of ideation and invention.

These three modes are not isolated into one or more functions within the company. They are present anywhere, but the ratios may differ. For instance ‘Daily Business’ may be dominant on the shop floor, while ‘Management’ will be strongly present in Headquarters. In some companies, ‘Innovation Initiatives’ are abundant in R&D or Engineering Departments, but in other companies they are more obvious in Sales or maybe even on the Factory Floor.

The Innovation leader on the playing field

An innovative initiative can only ever have an impact on the running company if its leader dares to take position on the intersection between the three anchor points of the innovation playing field. This observation may sound straightforward at first, but in practice, it turns out that most innovation leaders tend to foster the shelter of one of the conditions instead of trying to stretch the balance between the three.

Examples of shelter

Innovation Initiatives: The observation that daily business and processes hamper the innovative spirit within the company may lead innovation leaders towards the shelter of the ‘new and revolutionary’. Some claim that the bureaucratic processes hamper the ideation and creativity within their teams, and focus on ‘venturing’ opportunities and spin-outs to turn the innovative ideas into reality. Others may choose to invest in opportunities that have little to do with the core-business of the mother company. Such efforts may become successful by themselves, but don’t innovate the original company.

Management: Well-managed companies like smooth processes and predictable projects. The popularity of the leader of the R&D Department with his business peers will rise if he makes innovation processes more transparent and better ‘manageable’. Once he has found the ‘safe haven’ of innovation management tools, the same R&D VP may find it difficult to keep the connection with ideation and the nerdy world of technological discussions.

Daily Business: The core of the business is it’s primary process. Innovation projects that are well aligned with existing product lines, sales channels or internal expertise will often have shorter payback times than initiatives that are more stretching to the core. In view of their career, many marketing and innovation directors choose for ‘incremental innovation’ rather than venturing a more radical idea.

On Finding and Fostering ‘hooks for innovation’ in the running business

To tap into the true innovative capability of the running company, the innovation leader will need to take the initiative from the shelter and connect to the other two conditions. How can he do that? First of all, the leader of the innovation needs to understand where he is positioned – which shelter has he chosen?

Secondly, the nature of each condition may help to find hooks to pull the innovation forward. Let’s have a closer look at the three anchor points of the innovation playing field to identify the appropriate ‘tactics’ to connect:

The ‘Daily Business’ is about the company’s primary process, the core business and key competencies.  This circular energy is probably the most powerful source of resistance to innovation, as it is related to firmly held believes, unwritten rules, age-old patterns, the norms and identity of the company. At the same time, the daily business is also the basis of a sustainable company. To break the logic of the ‘appropriate’, the innovation leader will need to find ways to lure people into experimenting with new ways of working, to develop fresh perspectives and to ask questions about their long-held sense of reality. Challenging long-held believes and identities does not make popular and can only be done by highly-regarded opinion leaders. By questioning the norms of the company, the innovation leader deliberately runs the risk of ‘being expelled’.

“Innovation in a running business is a lot like finding the delicate balance in a yoga-pose”  (My yoga-teacher). Some companies have innovated very successfully by stretching the ‘adjacent possible’.  A nice example is the Dutch newspaper NRC, who launched NRC Next, the ‘young alternative for the Web-savvy generation’ which uses 60% of the content of the existing newspaper. The recent flop of the Flip-camera for Cisco may well be related to an innovation effort that ‘stretched a bit too far’.

‘Management’ is about hierarchy, structure and processes. Innovation does not exist for management as long as it is not resourced, led and planned. To connect, the innovation will need to become visible. Many inventors feel uncomfortable with the management dimension of innovation leadership, and may call the processes bureaucratic and loathe the political ‘games’ at play. The reality is that management is present in every running company, even within companies that have a terrific track record in innovation, like Google or Apple. Successful innovation leaders master this political game.

‘Innovation leadership requires the combination of deep understanding of the invention and the lateral ability to spot opportunities within the decision-making bodies within and around the company. In our company, leaders develop this aptitude by moving between various expatriate assignments’ (A befriended VP of a tech firm)

‘Innovation Initiatives’ are about new ideas, and great ideas only grow in fertile communities of experts with freedom to connect and disagree.  Companies can have great rhetoric about innovation intents, but if they cannot create lively communities through which ideas and knowledge can cross-fertilize, I would not like to put my bets on their sustainable future. Innovation leaders will need to find ways to make ideation part of normal business, and help innovators develop new ideas into tangible business proposals.

‘Developing the next generation equipment is really hard for us now that we had to let go more than half of our R&D staff. Our remaining R&D people work closely with the developers in the supplier companies, but the organic cross-fertilization between expertise areas has gone’ (Technology Application Director)

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