Innovate or Die

November 12th, 2010

An Article About Neither

The editorial calendar for Thinking is set six months in advance. Writing assignments are then tracked by the working title of the article. On Wednesday evening (when this article was originally due), our editor reminded me that I had passionately pitched the provocative headline above, but of course I had not provided her an outline or abstract, so she had no idea what I had intended to write about. That made two of us. Her parting direction was highly motivating: “Something about innovation, no later than Friday morning. You are holding up the whole show.”

Thursday 7:55 a.m. 500 words about innovation. Should be a piece of cake and I have an easy day ahead, with only one scheduled meeting on my calendar. Let’s see, innovation: creativity, big ideas, thinking outside the box, reinvention, The Big Hunt. Maybe I will pull out the old “innovation go-to” case study on Post-It Notes or find a write-up about Apple. Foster a creative environment. Capture thinking from all levels of the organization. Reward risk taking. It’s all about ideation.

Thursday 8:04 a.m. The first new email of the day. I begin to respond via email and decide to pick up the phone instead.

Thursday 6:16 p.m.
Three hours on the telephone, 166 e-mails (about 10 of which I really needed to be included on), someone “just stopping by” every time I sat down in my office, an impromptu meeting to discuss something about replacing the carpeting in the lobby (I was only halfway listening) and prepping a forecast that I forgot I had promised our bank. Heading out of Bozell, I see a text message waiting from my daughter that says, “Where r u? I have practice at 6:30.”

At least the only scheduled meeting of the day went well. Our senior team gathers every other week to discuss our strategic initiatives. We have tons of good ideas and many of them do not require a major investment to get off the ground. As a relatively small organization, our problem is time. The people who are serving our clients are the same people who are tasked with implementing new ideas. I offer a stellar update on the launch of the new business unit that we initiated about a year ago, though I don’t have much to report because I have been really busy lately.

Thursday 11:05 p.m. Still no article, but while I was watching the news I drew a really cool process diagram on how to spur creative thinking. Quick glance at my email. Interesting. Some survey(1) shows Fortune 500 executives rank their organizations as well above average in generating ideas, but very poor in commercializing them. Case studies on companies that struggled with execution even after big ideas were out in the open. Xerox after Canon introduced personal copiers. Kodak after digital photography was introduced. Sears after Wal-Mart introduced the everyday low pricing retail format. I guess big companies have the same problem getting stuff done as we do. I am going to go back and read it, just a soon as I come up with something to write about innovation.

“All talk and no walk” does not make for an innovative company. Those of you close to your customer and business know that ideas often flow freely, and the difficulty comes in bringing good ideas to commercial viability.

There will always be operational aspects of your business and interruptions that will impact priorities. To improve innovative execution, try:

Ranking ideas in a quadrant, comparing the highest business impact with ease of implementation, which based on your organization, may include impact on operations and funding requirements.

Assign a champion to each idea, giving that person both the responsibility and accountability to move the idea forward.

Assigned a timeline with measured milestones and phased spending limits.
When milestones are reviewed, remember that invariably additional information will arise as an idea is tested. Also be cognisant that champions may lose objectivity as they invest their time and emotions into a project. Create a disciplined process to authorize continued resource allocation.

1. The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, Harvard Business Press, September 2, 2010, Vijay Govidarajan and Chris Trimble.

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