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Innovation Cycle: The path to success

Innovation simply cannot be achieved through some linear or directional approach.  It needs to be nurtured and harnessed to become truly powerful.

Welcome to the third blog in a series entitled, ‘Strategy Execution Odyssey’.  We are on a quest to discover the real secrets behind delivering that all important organisational strategy.  The most successful businesses always seem to deliver on their intended strategies.  In this age of business disruption, this is especially challenging to achieve.  What makes these businesses different to those that aren’t successful?  What are they doing differently? 

Join me on a journey to the boundaries of what could be, and what shouldn’t be.  In the past two episodes we explored the significant role people have on strategic execution by examining what true collaboration looks like, and the importance of applying the ‘right’ feedback.  In this episode, we explore innovation, which too has become another big-use and catch-all word.

I’m often asked what innovation is, and lately a few have asked what I mean by, ‘innovation cycle’.  This concept was mentioned in a recent interview I gave here.  http://www.flipsideworld.com/#talking-innovation

At a basic level, innovation is simply about doing something new or different than what is normally expected.  Its purpose is to pursue an answer to something that is not well understood.  Being innovative challenges the mind to think outside of our mental boxes exploring that age-old phrase, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.

In businesses of yesteryear, the traditional way to compete was to tweak a business process here, recalibrate a machine there.  Producing these type of efficiencies is simply not being innovative.  Why?  The mind already knows the business process and how a machine is calibrated.  We operate with a mental box in deciding what we could achieve to reduce cost and increase efficiencies.

Tweaking something requires an awareness of what is already there to analyse the current operating environment and where we are aiming to be. 

Contrarily, innovative thinking doesn’t know or care about our current operating environment.  In fact, innovative thinking doesn’t even require us to apply a rationalised argument about the things we already know.  Rationalising an innovative decision is largely based on what we don’t know.  Our normal mental box need not apply here.

This is fundamentally why performing innovation is so bloody hard to do. Like the diagram above, this area sits far from our comfort zone. It forces new thinking and new approaches which are juxtaposed to those internal mechanisms inside organisations today.

I’d like to introduce a simple metaphor to illustrate these opposing worlds as our journey shifts from a why does it matter to more of a what is it.

If this was a game of shapes, most large organisations today would be your classic square box with rigid walls and clearly defined set of parameters. In this familiar world, everyone knows their place and how the company operates; the classic top-down approach.

An innovative company on the other hand would resemble more of a circle with elastic walls and no defined boundaries.  Just wide open spaces to collaborate and perform cross-functional work activities.  Roles here are not fixed but instead fluid.  They are based on the particular short-term need, rather than a long-term operational objective.

That said a circle is … well … static in nature.  It may be able to support an innovative workplace that attracts and retains top talent, but in itself the circle is just an environment.  It does not create innovative value.  By being static, it is lacking purpose.

We need to take that circle and turn it into a wheel.  A wheel capable of moving us to our new strategic destination. 

Let’s look at the major components of our wheel. Think of the hub in the middle as our current digital value within the company. The outer rim of the wheel is our desired target state, or destination we are seeking. The tyre tread is any realised business value we have measured on our journey. Our talented workforce is the key to performing innovation well.

Perhaps the most important aspect of our wheel are the spokes. Spokes strengthen our wheel allowing it to move in a direction. Each spoke can be thought of as an innovative initiative of some type.

The more initiatives, the more spokes. And the more spokes allow us to travel ever faster towards our destination (i.e. transform the company). Try and move too fast without the necessary supporting spokes and we risk damaging the wheel and slowing our journey. Yes, the idea of failing fast is still very much a part of innovating, but failing fast here is about building spokes, not about how fast our wheel moves.

This concept of a wheel supported by a set of innovation spokes in essence is our ‘innovation cycle’. Not every wheel is created equally, and the same holds true for each company. There is no magic or secret sauce to transforming an organisation to become more innovative. No chevron or linear best practice diagram will suffice here.

Certain organisations will require a different set of innovative initiatives than others. Nor is the amount of spokes as significant as the weight each spoke supports. The combinations are endless. The journey will always be unique.

Unfortunately for many organisations the journey starts too early when they don’t have a fully developed circle. It’s hard to move a wheel with a pointed edge or two.

These organisations are stuck in their mental box, surrounded by trees without fully appreciating they are in an old-world forest (what they don’t know).

Traveling through the forest and then beyond it, some organisations may encounter a few flats on the way, whilst others may hit trees or take a bad tumble requiring significant repairs to their wheel.  The innovative cycle is just that, a unique cycle for each and every organisation as they attempt to cross the digital Rubicon to becoming more competitive.

In wrapping up, I’d like to return to our box organisation. How to create good innovation when everything in the organisation is designed against such an approach? It all starts and stops with leadership and a truly collaborative, people-infused cultural change. An organisation’s digital strategy may be of utmost importance and something more familiar in function, but it will always be held hostage to leadership and collaboration.

In the next episode I’ll explore how a company can reshape themselves. In the meantime, I’m interested in learning if your organisation is still a box, circle, or perhaps something in-between? Please share your innovation cycle story below in the comments.

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