Innovation is our highest aspiration and our most meaningless. Buzzword. The dictionary defines innovation as “a new idea, device, or method” or
“the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods.” Nobody wants to be ancient, hidebound, or stuck in the mud. Everybody wants to be innovative.
Companies are hiring innovation gurus, empanelling task forces, and opening innovation labs or centers of excellence at a breakneck pace to keep up with cultural and technological change and to convince themselves that they have a clue about what’s going to happen next. The intention is to overcome the iron law of bureaucracy and the inevitability of silos by being agile and nimble in chaotic and competitive marketplaces.
Innovation is partly about attitude and partly about finding disruptive processes and products to get ahead faster. It’s about thinking about and doing things differently. With an assumption, often unarticulated, that innovation has to be infused or ingested into an organization rather than grown organically, leaders are scrambling to find catalysts that to move faster, better, and smarter.
There is a healthy unresolved debate about how much inside knowledge is necessary to innovate. Some argue you must understand the internal mechanisms and dynamics of an industry or a business to effectively re-engineer it. Others argue that kicking over the checkerboard is sufficient. Inside insights actually impede innovation rather than fuel it. There are cases to support both points of view.
There is a parallel debate about how innovation takes root or doesn’t. Some argue training advocates, redesigning processes, and imposing top-down mandates can graft innovation into an existing organization. Others argue that without widespread and repetitive training, incentives, enforcement, and genuine employee engagement and acceptance you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Here too there are cases documenting either point of view
Here is a quick tour of the leading tactics in race to innovate American business.
Import Gurus. There is no shortage of speakers, experts, and consultants selling organizational change and innovation. It’s a Baskin Robbins of blab. Transformation is on everyone’s lips. There are endless ideas and inspirations to be had. But there are fewer nuts-and-bolts formulas to get from today to a better place.
Create Innovation Teams. Many business put together diverse multi-disciplinary teams with complementary skill sets and functional or geographic representation to puzzle out the innovation problem. Set outside the bounds of day-to-day business, these insiders generally know what’s working and what’s not. But getting to what will work better is rarely a lay-up. In order to have any effect these teams need C-level sponsorship, a well-defined mandate and timetable, and specific instructions on deliverables. Otherwise it becomes a frustrated debating society.
Staff a B Team. Taking a page from government, some firms have put together cross-functional teams and charged them with simulating tough competitors. Asking savvy insiders to blow up the existing business, find competitive weaknesses, or apply disruptive technologies can ideally yield a roadmap for innovation, which could pre-empt competitive inroads and/or turn vulnerabilities into competitive advantages. Asking some of the best players to take down your business requires a willingness to listen to and accept their insights and recommendations.
Hire Outsiders. Using consultants or hiring outsiders is a classic tactic for bringing new perspective into an organization. Often senior-level hires bring vastly different points of view, experiences, and staff with them, which can transform policies and procedures. The same holds true for consulting firms who frequently have a broad and deep perspective on the competitors and the business dynamics among competitors. Though in some cases what worked in Company A won’t work in Company B.
Hire Newbies. “Fresh ideas come from the mouths of babes” is the philosophy behind this tactic. Hire millennials who are digital natives and who are your next best customers. Ask them to reinvent your business. Free from being part of an existing company or organizational culture, they start with a blank sheet to reimagine products, services, and engagement they way they’d want it. And while you might have to filter their ideas for practicality, timing or cost, you might gain a completely new approach or a leg up on the competition.
Align with Start-ups and Accelerators. Invest in or align with people creating new forms of business and import their best findings is the cornerstone of this approach. Isolated from the dynamics of the main business, watch, learn, and cherry pick the best ideas and the best people from businesses at earlier stages of formation. To some extent this harvests the best IP and the newest insights or applications of technology from the vast majority of new companies that fail.
Nobody has cracked the innovation code. And nobody has a corner on the market for rapid improvements or new ideas. Intention and openness drive investments of time, resources, and money in innovation projects. Leadership and competitive necessity separate out the real innovators and drive adoption of innovative policies, practices, products, or procedures.
Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.