The fantastic Amplify festival in Sydney has just come to an end. What a week! The curation for this event by Annalie Killian (@maverickwoman) from AMP was just outstanding. It is very rare to such a rich set of speakers coming together for one week.
This is even more exceptional if you’d know that this is a bi-annual fest exclusively targeted at employees from AMP. What a great innovation effort to bring the outside in, to expose corporate staff to the vibrant world of innovation at the edges of their own ecosystem!
Every company should copy-cat this approach.
As I listened to the different speakers talking about technology breakthroughs, innovation efforts, transformation efforts, and behaviour change programs, i felt a growing discomfort inside myself with the seemingly over-glorification of technology as a cure to solve all world problems, and the un-balance with business humanising insights.
At the same time, I started wondering how much of all this really lead to substantial changes and actual products and services shipped, with real value add reaching the customers on a sustainable basis.
Every time I meet innovators in a corporate environment, I ask the question: “what is your biggest innovation challenge?” Most of the time the initial answer is an embarrassing silence, and at best the answer is foggy and lacking clarity of vision and intention.
It made me think: what is it that makes companies’ innovation real? What is it that lets people with the holy fire flourish or die in our organisations? What is the authenticity of all this innovation work?
Illustration by @gapingvoid
With some very rare exceptions, all companies have innovation in their annual reports, part of their corporate branding exercise, even part of their mission. And many companies have actually dedicated central or distributed innovation resources and budgets in place. The happy few have even started or are starting with Corporate Garages (see “The New Corporate Garage” by @scottdanthony).
Image courtesy Apple Computer
However, in many cases this is window dressing and innovation seems to be mere “lipstick on a pig”. This creates disappointment, frustration, and a sense of illusion, and leads to disengagement of the staff at large.
In order to help organisations self-assess how real their innovation is, I started pulling together 10 questions. Depending on the number of 1) and 2) answers to the questions below, you will be able to find out for yourself where you stand, and hopefully will allow you to start a “straight talk” conversation within your organisations on the best way forward. The more I think about this, the more i am getting convinced that the key to succes is based on high quality alignement of vision and intention at all levels, and the irradiation of “stories” that seem to perpetuate in corporate environments.
The questions are organised per influence group of your organisation or give some insights in your real appetite for change and experimentation. Just tick 1) or 2) for your answer and add up the numbers at the end of the exercise.
- Board level
- 80%+ of your Board is really – in a pro-active, visible and public way – supporting innovation, or
- 50% of your Board are in essence against innovation and want you to focus on the core and the other 50% just “tolerate it”, close their eyes and trust their CEO not to do too disturbing things that can harm the company’s reputation.
- Strategy level
- Is innovation a dedicated chapter at the beginning of your strategy documents, or
- Is innovation merely a paragraph at the end?
- CEO level:
- Does your CEO deeply embody the desire to change and disrupt in an integer, consistent and authentic way, or
- Do you notice in the tone during the all-hands sessions almost an embarrassment when she takes the word innovation in her mouth?
- Executive Committee level: Are your executives aligned on innovation or not? Just do this mind-experiment: What do you really think would happen if you pop-in by surprise at the next Exec Meeting and ask each Exec to list the top-3 alignments on innovation:
- Would you hear one strong consistent message of alignment and genuine enthusiasm, or
- Many voices of disagreement and vagueness, and an urge to move on to the business of the day?
- Level-1 / Level-2 (Senior and Middle Management)
- Do they see innovation as the instrument by excellence to make bridges between the edge and the core, to transform your industry, brand, and network with the deep desire to challenge the status quo, or
- Do they look at innovation as the people who burn money, travel a lot, do not innovate in the core, a special bunch that never blends in, and is always “out there”?
- Your colleagues in general:
- Are they looking at the innovation team as a group of people that brings value, creates excitement, infuses new energy, creativity and enthusiasm, or
- Are they complaining about having to stay in their cubicles while the innovators have fun?
- Sandbox projects
- Do you have a process in place to force forward consciously at least 1-2 “big bad ideas” per year into the mainstream business, in other words do you have an innovation portfolio approach, or
- Are more than 99% of sandbox projects killed before ever getting a chance to get materialised in real products and services, because not fitting the strategy or no immediate revenue potential?
- Sandbox or playground
- Is your sandbox considered as a real space for experimentation and organizational learning, or
- Is your sandbox just tolerated as a children’s playground as long as it does not disturb the core and does not challenge existing power balances?
- When the going gets tough – in time of cost cutting:
- Do you observe a conscious choice to remain flat or even further invest in innovation for the long term, or
- Do you observe random flat cost cutting across all departments or – even worse – bigger cuts in innovation?
- Daring to be great
- Is their a process to identify your Corporate Catalysts and to plant them into the fabric of the organization to create viral change from within, or
- Have most of those that dared to be great, and had the courage to stick out their necks during the last 2 years been made silent or laid-off as part of cost-cutting, efficiency or other re-organization initiatives?
Let’s be conservative or even kind in your self-assessment:
- If you have answered more than half of the questions with 1) there is a chance that your innovation is real. Focus on the execution of your innovations, and the shipping of value adding products and services into the marketplace;
- If you have more 2) answers, you probably live in an innovation illusion and it means you have more work to do in laying a solid foundation of belief across the organisation Avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water. Push for clarity in the vision and intention of your innovation efforts, and focus first on deep bottom-up viral behaviour change activities, as behaviour drives culture and not the other way around. And remember; you will need passion, perseverance, and patience to succeed.
In other words, turn on the B.S. detector and ask yourself the question: is your innovation a real strategic choice or just a tick-box to satisfy your feel-good-moments. And plan your actions accordingly.