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The Innovation Enthusiasm Pendulum

Innovation is an endurance game not a sprint.

Yet, if you have been inside a large organization long enough, you have likely noticed that innovation enthusiasm tends to come and go.  It will be on the top of everyone’s agenda for a year or two, then a pendulum shift brings a crushing end to the programs and priorities that previously generated so much excitement.

The problem with this pattern is that it often means that companies abandon their innovation before it produces the solution or return they set out to achieve in the first place.  Why does this pattern exist?  What must you do to minimize this potential in your organization?  Here are four key areas that are critical to address before you launch an innovation initiative within your organization to increase success and commitment.

If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first three hours sharpening my axe.” – Abe Lincoln


Strategy – Do you know the #1 problem that matters most to your organization solve?  Have you vigorously pursued its root cause?  Have you debated the level of change that needs to be achieved to influence consumer behavior, purchaser intent, and/or user delight?  Many organizations (and entrepreneurs) launch into innovation initiatives with a broad set of targets, high level understanding of what they are trying to solve for and a general sense of how good the solution needs to be.  Without substantial upfront rigor, time and talent investment in aligning your innovation targets with your long-term business strategy, when things get difficult (and they do, ALWAYS), pressure will emerge in your organization to stop moving forward and reallocate innovation resources.

Expectations – Are you clear on the type of change you want to achieve and the timeframe it will take to achieve it?  Is this well communicated?  Often, organizations soften the definition of innovation and manipulate it to be inclusive.  The intended benefit is to keep everyone accountable for incremental change that improves performance – which is good.  This allows management to keep the resourcing within the existing business structure/budgeting and use familiar performance metrics.  However, if the goal is disruptive or transformational change, it is likely that you need to set an expectation of a longer-term timeframe, with specialized talent, a unique structure/funding, and modified metrics.  The different change ambition (incremental versus disruptive) must be clear to your organization and backed by strong leadership commitment to achievement as the latter will require more protection.

Workflow – Have you thought about who in your organization the innovation initiative will involve and how it will impact their day to day work?  Not understanding workflow (internal and external) is a primary threat to innovation success.  Typically, organizations have separate functions which are individually accountable for their annual work planning and budgeting.  What happens if you have not involved all the support functions you need upfront and as a result, their management doesn’t resource appropriately for it?   Then your critical innovation work becomes their last priority behind other commitments that they were funded to complete.

Incentives – Have you oriented your rewards and recognition activities to align with the level of change ambition you want to accomplish?  Is it truly motivational?  Organizations have a bad habit of offering involvement in innovation programs as a “development opportunity” placed on top of people’s day job.  This can work when the primary change target is clearly associated with the core business and the desired end result is a new tactic.  But it often backfires, turning innovation team members into the resistance when applied to a more transformational target.  These projects, by their nature, represent threats to the products and processes people have built their success on so they will face counter-pressure.  Make sure clear, motivating innovation incentives exist and align with the new metrics you have associated with progress.

“People often resist change for reasons that make good sense to them, even if those reasons don’t correspond to organizational goals.  So it is crucial to recognize, reward and celebrate accomplishments.”  –Rosabeth Moss Kanter

There are other critical elements for innovation longevity and success.  But, when embarking on a mission to deliver game changing, competitive advantage building and customer delighting change, you must start with commitment.  Taking the time and effort to build strong foundational elements in each of these four areas for every innovation initiative creates the strategic plan, alignment, and transparency needed to maintain enthusiasm from start to finish.

If you are interested to discuss this further, please feel free to contact the author, using the Contact Us online form.