Managing Innovation Can Be Tricky

Managing innovation can be tricky. Instead, focus on creating the right conditions for innovation.

Although there are many tools and processes that can be employed for innovation, rigorous process and enterprise systems can have a negative impact on innovation efforts by suppressing creativity and spontaneity. I’m an advocate for an alternate model – one that is centered in attitude and behaviour. Instead of attempting to manage innovation, I believe that organizations should focus their resources on setting the conditions that will allow innovation to thrive.

Truly successful innovation programs need to have company capacity reserved for them. Time and resources need to be set aside so that participants can plan for their activities, reduce the need for compromise when it comes to priorities, and eliminate hope as an innovation strategy.

Setting the Stage for High-Impact Innovation

Many companies, one way or the other, are working on innovation. This can range from back-of-napkin conversations all the way through to heavily funded and structured R&D departments. And I would argue that innovation can happen at any company, and with meaningful results, if the following six conditions are present:

  1. A culture willing to take risk & accept failure. Most attempts at innovation do not lead to success; instead, they lead to other attempts at innovation. So be prepared to take risks with your efforts, and reward failure like you reward success: Good job, we got an answer, let’s move on to the next challenge.
  2. Cross-functional trust. Innovation will not thrive if it is only the “R&D people” that are engaged. Silos tend to create echo chambers that limit the intelligence of the team, while collisions among diverse team members add dimension and perspective to anything the team works on. Trust needs to be present on innovation programs right across the entire enterprise so that opportunities to innovate have already considered the sales team or the CFO, as opposed to isolating them from the process.
  3. Reserved time for the exercise or program. Truly successful innovation programs need to have company capacity reserved for it. Time and resources need to be set aside so that participants can plan for their activities, reduce the need for compromise when it comes to priorities, and eliminate hope as an innovation strategy. Hope is never a good strategy for anything.
  4. A common language. Whether it is design thinking, agile or lean start-up, there are many commonly accepted approaches, systems, and lexicons that can be used for teams to coordinate activity. The use of a common vernacular pays dividends – it is less about which approach you use, and more that one is used consistently by all participants.
  5. Understanding the difference between adaptation and innovation. Adaptation – also known as incremental improvement – is NOT innovation. Adaptation is your job: the incremental improvements that companies make on a regular basis in response to changing market conditions, customer feedback, and product roadmaps. Innovation is completely different. Adaptation changes the slope of the curve that your business is on today, while innovation puts you on a completely different curve altogether.
  6. Leadership. Leadership needs to be present on these initiatives, not only supporting the setting of these conditions, but participating themselves. Innovation is increasingly being discussed at the Board level within the enterprise, and leadership is the conduit to the Board, communicating the value of innovation in exchange for their commitment to make resources available. With leadership participation, that conversation will always be more productive, and will help people feel more inspired, generating new leaders at all levels of the enterprise.

Managing innovation can be tricky. But these conditions will absolutely provide the right kind of internal supports for it to thrive.

Learn more about T4G’s Innovation Practice.

Mark Fraser

Mark Fraser is Executive Vice President at T4G Limited and is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. Follow him on Twitter at @mark_fraser.