The quest for innovation

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helix_secret by Jurvetson

Enterprises express a desire to be innovative. It is the oft-cited statement from countless corporate leaders who evoke it in mission statements and pay homage to its value in supporting corporate growth. But, like many corporate goals, innovation is often more a vague, conceptual symbol than a clearly defined process. On closer examination, it is obvious that few organizations truly commit to innovation in a measurable way with head count, process management, funding or a meaningful reporting relationship to the company’s executive leadership.

For most of the past decade, economic growth was booming and new technologies and business processes were crowding into the marketplace and a precise definition and understanding of innovation may not have been an imperative. The recession of 2008 to 2009 brought an abrupt end to the boom times and with the subsequent recovery and return to growth, competition is being reshaped and the pace of business is faster and more volatile. Such turbulence makes the need to understand and harness the innovation process far more important than ever before.

Over years of work with Gartner clients on how to create an innovation approach that is sustainable and reliable, we have identified five myths that threaten to derail even the best laid plans. They are:

Myth No. 1: Innovation just happens.

Myth No. 2: Innovation only happens in R&D.

Myth No. 3: The best innovation comes from inside.

Myth No. 4: The more innovative ideas we generate, the better.

Myth No. 5: We have lots of smart people, so innovating will be no problem.

To offset the effects of an uncertain business environment, enterprises must step up to new realities in 2010-2015. Innovation should be aimed at recovery, return to growth and resolving the organization’s most critical challenges. By addressing the five myths about innovation, enterprises will be better positioned to achieve these objectives.

Today, we will look at the first myth.

Myth No. 1: Innovation Just Happens

Many organizations think of innovation as an unstructured process. Some promote the theory that innovation is a fortunate series of events that cannot or should not be managed. Others think of innovation as a “eureka” moment where great ideas spring fully formed from minds of eccentric, creative people. And, with the advent of Web 2.0 and social computing, still others believe that their next great idea may be generated and harvested from anyone and anywhere, so they stimulate, encourage and scan for ideas at every turn.

However, innovation is not usually the result of a random event nor does it require a continual, inefficient scan for relevant ideas. Sustainable innovation can be achieved through a managed process aimed at resolving persistent business issues, creating new business models or designing products and services that address unfulfilled customer needs. A well-managed innovation process can be designed to elicit ideas that are highly relevant to an organization’s specific or broad business objectives. In short, innovation can become a managed, reliable and fruitful process.

Enterprises must first focus their efforts by clearly understanding and defining the desired outcomes for innovation. Is the objective to develop new products, make new markets, create novel processes or resolve persistent business issues? Defining the business focus for innovation drives and steers the innovation process toward achieving these desired outcomes.

Gartner’s Innovation Process Model defines the four fundamental stages of managing innovation:

  • Generate ideas.
  • Evaluate and select the best ideas.
  • Develop and implement ideas into innovations.
  • Diffuse and socialize innovations.

Though innovation activities will be highly individualized based upon each company’s culture, business environment and strategic needs, there is a common thread: The better organizations understand the activities of the innovation process, the more effective they become at bringing the kind of innovation to the marketplace that will sustain corporate growth.

Enterprises will find that the major factor that impacts innovation in the early stages of the process is a culture of trust that can accommodate managed risk. In the later stages of the innovation process, the greater impact is, in fact, a well-managed process that ensures the right people are involved, funding is available and milestones are met.

Action item: Adapt Gartner’s innovation process model to make it specific to the focus and objectives of your organization. Use it as a part of the innovation education process to ensure that all participants in innovation projects have a consistent vocabulary and set of expectations.

Action item: Identify the factors that have the greatest impact on innovation in your organization, both the cultural factors and processes that will improve innovation initiatives. When a deficiency is detected, take steps to shore it up. For example, if your organization has trouble getting employees to contribute ideas, design a recognition program that rewards them for sharing their expertise.

Tomorrow: Does innovation only happen in R&D?

Carol Rozwell and Kathy Harris are consultants at Gartner Inc, a research firm.

Photo User: Flickr jurvetson

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