THE SIMPLICITY TRAP
Let’s face it; learning to execute innovation effectively is difficult. I think it’s this way mainly because it tends to be misleadingly simple. It reminds me of a problem I was given by a professor back in college, Curry’s Paradox. On the surface, at first glance, it looks simple and un-fantastic. Then as you start to consider the solution all hell breaks loose. It’s the same thing for innovation. Everyone seems to think that innovation is hard and it’s the execution that’s easy. But by the time you’ve figured out that it’s not as simple as you thought, it’s too late. You’re in, committed, and up to your ears in chaos. (Try your hand at the Curry Paradox below before you read on.)
Hint: The puzzle’s namesake was not a mathematician, but a magician. If you must, you may find the solution here on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_square_puzzle
So what did we learn? Curry teaches us a great lesson. That sometimes our own eagerness to provide a solution blinds us from the obvious. In this case there’s a simple and oh so subtle deception. The possibility of deception, the notion that our assumptions are wrong, is an obvious solution. But many of us rule this out because, well because, we think we know how to solve it!
The same goes for innovation. It looks simple. We’ve been told it’s simple. There’s even research that claims it is. Fact is it’s a bit more complex than it seems at first blush which tends to lead us to a critical error in judgment setting us off on the wrong path. Many people make the mistake of conflating innovation with ideation. I’ve worked with many clients who believe their top-secret database of thousands, (or tens of thousands), of ideas is proof enough of their innovative culture. It’s not, and this act tends to let us in on the great deception of innovation, that it’s all about the idea.
“All you need for a successful innovation is an idea and someone to do it.”
How many times have you heard a comment like this one? Is it something you believe? If you’ve been assigned to lead an innovation project and you hear those words leave your boss’s lips, turn and run away. Run far, far, away!
The folks at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business have been thinking about this subject for over a decade. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble have been conducting the groundbreaking, rigorous, research to suggest this notion is dead wrong. Assuming that the idea and a person to do it are enough can only result in the innovation’s failure sooner or later. Worse, the failure of the innovation can often create disruptive turbulence in the once-stable organization, using a grave amount of resources, as it continues to solve the problem with the wrong solution.
THE PERFORMANCE ENGINE
Govindarajan and Trimble’s work clearly points to a different strategy, one that involves understanding the challenges a new innovation initiative has on an existing business. They say clearly in The Other Side of Innovation, “the real innovation challenge lies beyond the idea. It lies in a long hard journey-- from imagination to impact”. Just prior to the imagination piece though, there’s something more self-reflective. It’s where the business will define what it does well, what keeps it moving, and what makes it successful. They refer to these things collectively as the performance engine. And here’s where it gets a bit counterintuitive for all of us business nerds. When you’re about to apply an innovation, don’t mess with that thing!
That “thing” again is called the performance engine. Make sure that your strategy in adding this new thing, the innovation, does not interfere with the performance engine’s existence. Sure, you can borrow from it, use what it’s learned, take advantage of its efficiencies; just don’t irritate it too much. And you do this by planning intelligently.
PREPARE FOR REJECTION
Understand that as a baseline the organization (and the performance engine) is already predisposed to reject the innovation. By definition the innovation is foreign to the performance engine. VG and Chris would say to qualify as an innovation to begin with the new project needs to be something you haven’t done before that has an unknown outcome. Otherwise it’s not an innovation, just an incremental change. Because the innovation seems so different, and because its outcomes are unknown, it is natural for the performance engine to reject it.
Now imagine that your performance engine in your organization is a human body. Consider then that your innovation initiative is an artificial heart valve. After many years of doing transplants and implants we’ve learned a lot.
What we’ve learned about such surgeries is that the human body (our performance engine) is predisposed to reject any foreign bodies put into it. We know this. Same thing goes for our businesses. Once we’ve got our businesses humming along, doing the things they’ve been designed to do, with years of tweaks to tune up operational efficiencies, we can assume that anything radically new will be seen as a threat.
Back in our metaphor, our physicians, charged with implanting the foreign parts into our bodies, know this too. And they’ve developed clear strategies to abate the obvious. Your doctor would never transplant an organ into your body without first considering the implications of your body rejecting it. We know a thing or two about how our immune system operates. How the moment foreign matter shows up, the system kicks out a plethora of antibodies all designed to protect itself and drive the invader out. Your doctor would no doubt prescribe to you a veritable pharmacopeia of prescriptions designed to minimize the inevitable rejection, to convince the body that the invader is really a partner in its survival. Over time they might even wean you off some of those prescriptions as the specific nature of the body’s rejection becomes evident, and the partnership matures. Point being that they assume first that there will be conflicts, and they take preemptive action to minimize the risks and damage from those.
BACK TO DECEPTION
Too many businesses go into innovation projects fooled into believing there’s no risk, that it’s just a matter of getting it done, that we can simply do business as usual while adding this new and uncertain thing. This would be a grave mistake. Remember Curry’s Paradox? It’s a deception, plain and simple.
If we now believe it’s not enough to simply have an idea and get someone to do it, then we have to look elsewhere for the solution. Executing an innovation successfully is not as simple as we may be led to believe, but it’s doable as long as we understand a few basics.
- Learn and respect the performance engine. Understand what makes it work… and who makes it work.
- Understand that research suggests innovations work best when they are treated as independent pieces of the larger whole. New rules should prevail in the dedicated team charged with the innovation. Business as usual will not work and will eventually absorb the innovation and make it meaningless.
- Due to the independent nature of this new dedicated team, and that the rules for innovation demand that they operate differently, admit that when an innovation initiative is applied there WILL be conflict. The performance engine will feel threatened.
- Know that this implied threat will create stresses on both sides, and real conflict. Work deeply on developing the partnership between the performance engine and the innovation team.
- Strategize ways around this resistance, but don’t assume you can prevent it. Typically this means clear communications and relationship building with the partners from both sides.
The work of Govindarajan and Trimble is elegant in how it describes the relationship between the performance engine and the dedicated innovation team. They describe it as developing a relationship of mutual respect. “Respect comes more naturally when innovators recognize that an innovation initiative, even a major one, is just an experiment. Innovation may very well signify the future, but the Performance Engine is the proven foundation, and if it crumbles, there is no future.”
Finishing our metaphor, if the performance engine (and everyone that plays a role in it) understands that the innovation initiative is designed to benefit them too, they will be more able to endure the inevitable irritation, stress, and awkwardness. And like our surgeons, it’s important to know what our expectations are, measuring the results, and learning along the way. In short, the innovation is only as good as the design of the learning built into it. Without this priority, the deception wins, and the innovation sooner or later finds itself on the wrong side of the organizational immune system.
Bill Palladino is a business consultant & writer. He serves as Senior Leadership Consultant with the International Thought Leader Network, based in Dallas, and has worked closely with authors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble on the creation of the workshop based on their innovation book, How Stella Saved The Farm. He is also owner of Krios Consulting based in Traverse City, Michigan.
Written for TrainingIndustry.com