In the last couple of months, there has been a spurt in my external speaking engagements on innovation. I am not sure why this is happening – perhaps its increasing optimism regarding the future, but it could be something more mundane like this being the preferred “season” for corporate events. Whatever the reason, it’s been fun to speak to a variety of audiences – a large multinational known for its print and imaging technologies; a leading public sector enterprise in defence electronics; a top global brand in denim; and a home-grown, pioneering consumer products company.
Organizational Rules and Innovation
I was impressed by the young and enthusiastic team of engineers at the public sector defence electronics company. They were engaged throughout the session and asked lots of questions.
One engineer was clearly chafing against what he saw as the rigidity in working conditions – fixed working hours and reporting times, authority structures, etc. He seemed convinced that innovation would be curbed under such constraints.
But what we know about innovation suggests that creativity is only one part of the innovation process. Particularly while validating, refining and sharpening an idea, discipline and perseverance is critical to the innovation process. We all know what happens when this phase of the innovation process is not given the attention it deserves – witness the problems that Boeing’s Dreamliner has faced thanks to inadequate testing and de-bugging of new technologies .
So, while the creative mecca might appear to be an organization that lacks rules and allows employees to come and go as they please, that might not quite mesh with reality. Take the case of Ideo, often regarded as the world’s top design firm – I haven’t visited them, but I have watched the shopping cart video several times, and it shows the team working morning to night every day. They might be allowed to wear whatever they want to office and hang up whacky things on the wall, but there is no let up as far as commitment to work is concerned.
Pursue your Passion or Align with the company?
Another interesting discussion was with a passionate individual contributor at the Indian consumer products company. His hand shot up almost immediately after I finished my presentation. He voiced his disagreement with one of the points I had made during the presentation – that it’s better to align one’s innovation efforts with the priorities of the company. His contention was that no radically new products or business opportunities would arise if one stuck to the existing areas of work within the company.
I explained the history of corporate R&D and how there was a phase immediately after the second world war when companies thought they could do almost anything driven by R&D, but how that phase had come to an end as increasing competition had reduced the resources available to pursue open-ended research work. Today, except for a few companies which hold monopolistic positions, few companies are able to afford R&D in areas that are not aligned to the business priorities of the company. So, if an employee wants to avoid frustration, and hopes to get buy-in from the business, she has little option but to work in areas that are likely to be of commercial benefit to the company.
Want to work on what takes your fancy? Work in a university or start something on your own if you have the resources to support it.
Consumer Orientation vs. Breakthrough Innovation
One question that comes up often is the link between consumer research and breakthrough innovation. In my talks, I emphasise the importance of immersion in the lives of consumers to understand their pains, identify waves and possibilities for elimination of waste. So, I am often asked whether this would not result in only innovation to meet the immediate needs of customers and thereby block any real breakthroughs.
But, in my view, there is a misconception here. Consumer research doesn’t mean asking consumers what they want as that is bound to be a limiting exercise resulting in incremental innovation. Good consumer research means living with consumers, watching how they consume and use products, what adaptations they have made in how they use products because of the limitations of products, etc.
Immersion helps understand needs that consumers have themselves not been able to articulate and to anticipate fresh needs. And, why was Steve Jobs able to get away without even this level of immersion? Possibly because he and his team were themselves high level users of many of the products and services that Apple offered.
How to Increase Velocity
At one of the companies, a big question was how to enhance velocity and make sure innovation projects move forward rapidly. While support for experimentation (providing resources and time, creating a culture where failure is not penalized) is one part of the story, the other is creating mechanisms to help ideas along their way. One important way of doing this is designing effective review processes. Every review should be both an opportunity for learning as well as an opportunity to remove obstacles. Reviews act as a pull and a pressure – members of the team feel obliged to display some progress since the previous review. Another useful mechanism is a formal incubation process.
Tailpiece: Innovation has unexpected scope
One benefit of visiting and speaking to so many companies is that you get to learn more about their innovations. Somehow, I never thought of denim and jeans as arenas for innovation – but, I recently learnt that Lee and Wrangler have tried out a whole range of new things.
Lee has a range called NoSweat that includes PerformAir that incorporates evaporative cooling; linen-blended denim for a cool and summery feel; Minerals with micro-encapsulated moisturizers to keep your skin lubricated; and Fragrant denim that slowly release sweet smells. Wrangler has jeans embedded with silver dust to act as an anti-bacterial, a boon for people who don’t/can’t wash their jeans often. And, soon to come is a new denim that is warm in winter and cool in summer thanks to some revolutionary fabric research from a company called Coolmax.
Just look at how many things you can do in just one area!