An excellent analogy – as Mitchell Ditkoff says in his blog (http://jefmil134.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/the-manager-as-the-idea-midwife/)

“Innovation coaching is the art of midwiving ideas in today’s nanosecond marketplace. And it is, arguably, the most important skill a business leader can learn.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

But let’s take the analogy a bit further.  Having the idea is just the beginning of innovation.  Then there is the task of nurturing a fragile idea until it is strong enough to fend for itself, strong enough to resist the attacks of corporate culture.  The surviving idea can then be developed, strengthened, tested and refined until it is able to make its way in the world.

So I’d say that the next task for the business leader is to develop organisational processes and culture to nurture and develop the idea.

But don’t just leave it at one idea – create the environment within which many can be born and develop, train other midwives and start a population explosion.

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Building innovation capacity

December 18, 2008

There’s lots of debate about what to do about innovation with the onset of recession. An emerging consensus is that continuing to invest is the sensible thing to do.  Indeed, I’ve contributed to that opinion working alongside Arthur D Little, writing in ‘Innovation Culture’ (www.adlittle.uk.com/reports_uk.html?&no_cache=1&category=17&view=240).

But one team that I’m working with at the moment is going a step further.  They’re explicitly developing not only the innovations in their products (which happen to be software and supporting services) but they are investing in their capacity to innovate.  We reason that, as well as lining up future generations of products ready for the upturn, now is the time to build the tools for faster and better innovation in future.

Why?  I’ve yet to meet anybody with a cogent argument that supports a prediction of the duration of this recession – so I conclude nobody knows.  I don’t.  Hence innovation strategies are bedevilled by a lack of clear timescales – the ‘market window’ has no frame.  Secondly, customers are not behaving today as we expect (and hope) them to behave in future.  So targeting innovation, prioritising new features and benefits, launching new services, or exploring new business models will miss the future needs if we use only today’s perspectives.

So the team is building tools for better innovation.  They have a platform product that can be tailored in ways appropriate to customers’ demands.  Today’s job is to make it easier to develop that platform in the directions needed by future customer demand.  The next generation will not only be customisable but will be easier to extend to entirely new functionality.  The innovations are hidden from the end user, buried in the architecture, the interfaces, the alignment with new and emerging standards.  But the end result is that, come the upturn and the return of customers interested in performance as well as price (have you seen IT budget projections lately?) they will be more agile than their competitors.

So that’s the new strand for the innovation agenda.  They are also developing their overarching customer proposition.  Their product is aimed at helping companies to engage better with their customers in the B2B space.  But companies are facing the same issue – what do you do when there’s a very rapid change in priorities, in issues and in underlying demands?  So the new proposition of this team is ‘we can help you to learn faster’.  Their software product is an ideal tool for that.  The key is how well you use it.  So, by helping their clients to learn faster they, in turn, optimise their future product to support faster learning.  Which will matter during the downturn and will also matter during the upturn.  Whenever that may be.

Had an interesting conversation at the Cambridge University Open Innovation in Services Workshop (http://www.regionalinnovation.org.uk/events/article/default.aspx?objid=2358) last week with someone who maintains that the definition doesn’t matter and that debating the subject is a sterile waste of time. I don’t agree. I’ve seen two cases in the last few years where the definition of ‘innovation’ has been profoundly important.

In the first case there was no agreed differentiation from ‘continuous improvement’. And because the six-sigma task force was determined to defend their turf we found that ‘innovation’ became squeezed into a narrow definition that encompassed only the more radical forms of innovation. Incremental innovation belonged to continuous improvement. Unfortunately with ‘innovation’ restricted to ‘radical’, senior management took fright, worried about risk and unpredictability.  Took a lot of unravelling.

In the second case the confusion arose between ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’. Excessive focus on the first meant that we struggled to get management attention onto development and exploitation. They found it so much more fun to focus on generating ideas rather than to manage the hard grind of proof of feasibility and development.

So I think the definition does matter. More importantly I think it is absolutely essential that people discuss and agree what is to be meant by words such as ‘creativity’, ‘innovation’, and ‘continuous improvement’. Only then will people build a shared picture of the whole chain from creation and invention, through proof and development, to launch and exploitation. Only then will people understand the benefits of combining radical and incremental innovation. And only then can people make rational decisions about the risk and reward trade-off that they would like to embrace.

So I keep discussing, debating and defining. I believe that the process is worth the effort just to get an answer that the team / management team / organisation can share. And I’d advocate doing it early. Otherwise the subject will come back to bite you later.