Thursday, November 03, 2005

More on innovation

I’m taken with this idea that innovation is obvious. Why? Well, if innovation is not-obvious we need to work at it, and I’m not sure what we do about it. Maybe those answers will come.

But if we stick with the idea that innovation is obvious I’ve got lots of ideas on how to help it. Considering obvious innovation is the base case, if innovation is obvious and we cannot exploit it, if an organisation cannot harness it, then what chance does it have with non-obvious innovation? So, lets crack obvious innovation then we can tackle non-obvious.

In a modern world it is very easy for innovations – obvious or not – to be crushed, to be passed over or to be ignored. How does this happen? Well, there are a number of hurdles any idea must overcome.

For starters there is the time hurdle: we as individuals only have so much time, most of us have demands on our time from within our organizations and outside. If we can’t give time to innovation then how can we ever hope to think of the ideas let alone develop them into something?

The second is money: to develop an innovation may require money, say to buy the parts we need to create a prototype, or to get the resources (e.g. books, software) we need to explore the idea.

And of course, time is money so if we are short of money we are probably short of time too.

In both these cases there is a need for Slack. Tom De Marco has even written a book on just this subject – obviously called Slack (2002 - Slack). The thing is, if your every minute and every penny is accounted for in advance you aren’t going to have the time or money to pursue innovations. This is frequently the case when we work on highly scheduled projects.

When an innovation is processes based we open the whole question of change management. For example, suppose you want to try XP in your software development organization: yes XP is an innovation; yes it is obvious (because enough books have been written about it) but, are people prepared to change the way they work? Are managers prepared to take a chance on something?

So, innovation may be stifled because some people are not prepared to try something new.

It may also be held back because people are risk averse. In particular, people in positions of responsibility may be more comfortable repeating something they have done before than trying something new. And if they will not try something new then who else in the organisation will?

Neither will people pursue new idea if they are seen to be punished when it doesn’t work – or even ignored when they try something that does work. For example, sticking with the software development process example – because I know a little here – lets consider Joe and Fred who work for two separate software development companies.

Joe and Fred learn about Agile processes. They introduce the ideas to their teams. Fred’s team fails miserably and come pay review time every other manager is given a rise but not Fred. Clearly he will be deterred from trying any other new ideas.

Joe meanwhile has a modicum of success. Then his organization is re-organized – as companies are wont to do. And in the new structure Joe finds that he is effectively demoted. Is he going to be inspired to try any other new ideas?

Thing is, organizations need to be tolerant of risk and failure, and, just as importantly, ambiguity. This is easily said and hard to do.

Sometimes we crush new ideas because we put people in boxes. We assume that the R&D department will have the new ideas and not front-line staff. People respond accordingly – I spoke about this in my last Blog, “the Jackson Pollock example” and it related back to what I said a while ago about identity.

Ideas can also be crushed when they seem threatening. Again, Joe’s Agile team may not have space for an “architect” in the team, people in the company who consider themselves to be “architects” may feel threatened and work against Joe – either actively or passively.

Just because one person exists in one place on the organizational chart, say “Marketing” doesn’t mean they can’t have a good idea about another area, e.g. manufacturing.

The same thing happens when a potential product threatens to cannibalise sales of an existing product. Perhaps it is better to burry the new idea. But isn’t it better to cannibalise your own sales than have a competitor come up with a similar idea and steal your sales?

With all these ways to crush an innovative idea is may seem remarkable that new ideas survive at all! Big companies have more of these “defence” mechanisms than small companies and so crush more ideas. Small companies have few defences – indeed some small companies come about when people get fed up of their ideas being crushed and leave the big company to pursue a new idea.

Of course, in a big company there may be more time and money to develop the new ideas. The firm may be profitable enough that it can take more risks with more new products.

So, both big and small have their advantages. However, there is a need to develop and nurture a culture of innovation. If you don’t do this when you are small it is harder to introduce (retro-fit) when you are large.