Innovation isn’t the Goal; It’s the Strategy.

By Tony Vengrove Strategy Focus I’ve come to the conclusion that the “We Have to Innovate or Die” mantra has done more harm than good. The fatal flaw comes from the use of the word, “innovate.” It leaves many thinking innovation is the goal as opposed to an enabling strategy—that if some form of innovation is not achieved, the company is destined for extinction. Yes, we have to innovate, but again, innovation isn’t the goal, it’s an enabling strategy.

“How can we better serve our market?”

It’s time we treat it as such.  We’ll all be better served if we stop focusing on innovation as a means to an end, and get back to asking: How can we better serve our market? This question invites strategic and creative thinking. There are surely numerous ways to serve our market better; delivering innovation is just one of them.

During my corporate years, I didn’t come to work everyday asking myself, What can I innovate? I concentrated on how we could attract new customers to our business. How could we better serve the market? How can I capture an attractive market segment for our company? What changes in the market should we be worried about? Answers to questions like these led to an array of ideas ranging from new product concepts, pricing strategies, to marketing communication and more.

Perhaps I’m a different breed, but when I led innovation teams I didn’t feel obligated to only influence new product development; I viewed my role as having the authority to scrutinize all facets of the business—internally and externally. By taking a holistic approach to what was precipitating change in consumer behavior and market dynamics, we not only questioned every detail about the business, we forced people to explain why they were doings things the way they were. This curiosity and the conversation it generated often resulted in a “What if we…?” moment—that inspirational aha when someone connects the dots and shares an idea.

When innovation teams adopt a more holistic approach to their strategic thinking, they’ll not only develop ideas that are more aligned with market needs, they’ll be quicker to identify emergent strategic shifts that warrant further study and response.  And in this day and age, we all know the value of getting out in front of an important trend.

“The goal for innovation leaders is to ensure perpetual growth for the business.”

The most important goal for an innovation leader is to ensure perpetual growth for the business.  The goal isn’t to just churn out new products. Believe me, I know firsthand what it’s like to lead innovation. The pressure to deliver is often translated into numerical targets: bring X amount of new concepts to the table and launch X amount of new products into market. Those are important metrics to track, but when you’re simply trying to hit numbers, you’re probably going to waste precious resources launching subpar ideas. Just because something is novel and you have the capability to produce it doesn’t mean you should.

Treating innovation as a strategy helps avoid the temptation to think myopically about new product development. By asking, “How can we better serve our market?” instead of “What can we innovate?” ensures you’ll identify multiple relevant opportunities across the entire marketing mix that can serve to preserve and grow your business.  That’s what it all about!

Photo: Getty Images/IvelinRadkov

Tony VengroveMiles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

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Dynamic Process: Adjusting Process to Encourage a Steady Flow of Ideas

By Anthony Vengrove

As companies pursue the holy grail of innovation they learn quickly the importance of process and creativity.  There’s critical need for both, of course.  However, since corporations favor logic-driven behaviors and are highly competent at developing and implementing process, it’s no wonder creativity often gets short shrift.

Innovation process is required for numerous reasons.  During the front-end, process is especially needed to manage the creation, sharing and evaluation of ideas and to provide a pathway for an idea to be approved for further exploration and resources.  Without process, complete creative freedom becomes unproductive and chaotic.

In an ideal state, innovation strategy, along with innovation process and creative thinking, should drive a steady flow of ideas into the pipeline.  I like to use the analogy of a faucet.  Ideally, the faucet should be open just enough so a steady trickle of drops form.  Unfortunately, most companies keep the faucet off until they need ideas and then they turn the spigot on full blast, which, of course, is not sustainable.

I believe that excessive process during the front-end of innovation can diminish an employee’s willingness to proactively create and share ideas.  Since they already have a full plate, they essentially opt out of participating because it’s too time-consuming and frustrating to “go through the process” of presenting and selling an idea.

The concept of Dynamic Process was conceived to help improve organic idea creation in a company culture. Most people tend to think of process as a fixed concept – something designed to be put into place and followed repeatedly.  Process is also often conveyed in linear design – start at point ‘A’ and end at point ‘Z.’

Dynamic Process suggests that we think of process as a variable concept.  Similar to how the Federal Reserve adjusts interest rates to stimulate economic activity, Dynamic Process suggests adjusting levels of innovation-related processes to encourage the development of ideas and the participation of employees.

As seen below, the Dynamic Process model plots the “degree of innovation process” on the horizontal axis against “pipeline fill” on the vertical axis.  In doing so, we can create a hypothetical quadrant map that shows optimal and suboptimal conditions.

Fig. 1 Dynamic Process Model ©2012 Miles Finch Innovation, LLC

Let’s begin with the suboptimal conditions, as they are conceptually easy to understand.  In the lower right-hand quadrant, the condition shows that process is abundant and the pipeline is empty.   We want to avoid this circumstance because if we lack ideas, the last thing we need is to make employees jump over several hurdles to submit and pursue ideas.  Similarly, subjecting ideas to an abundance of rigorous testing and analysis will probably kill ideas that have merit but just have not had enough time to incubate.  This can quickly demotivate employees who went through the time and effort to share.

The other quadrant to avoid is the upper left where ideas are plentiful but process is minimal.  In this situation, engagement may be high but essential infrastructure that provides instruction and order may be missing.  The result might be the submission of any and all ideas – with many likely to be off strategy.  This quadrant can demotivate over time because with so many ideas, most will go nowhere.  Moreover, if the proper infrastructure is not in place, key processes such as feedback loops won’t be in place to let employees know the status of their ideas.

The model suggests that when a firm is not content with the amount of ideas in their pipeline (i.e., it’s too empty or too full) that they can adjust their processes to encourage different employee behaviors.  If the pipeline is depleted, make it easier for employees to participate by removing non-critical processes.  In addition, evaluate the infrastructure in place for how ideas are judged and approved.  Chances are if you are prone to high levels of process you may be bombarding early ideas with too much logic and critical thinking.  Relax the burden of proof and give ideas a chance to develop.

Lastly, when ideas are plentiful and abundant, a firm may decide to impose more process and apply more constraints (upper right quadrant).  The intention here is not to reduce employee engagement; rather it is to be more specific with the innovation objectives and criteria so that employees are more likely to submit ideas that are aligned with specific strategies.  In addition, this quadrant is where more analytical screening and process infrastructure can help assess ideas and determine proper resource allocation.

A traditional corporate process is usually implemented and set in stone.  It may not always be reviewed regularly to identify its value or determine ways to improve it.  The Dynamic Process Model encourages management to evaluate their innovation process levels on an on-going basis.   I recommend a quarterly assessment schedule where the new product management committee can discuss the amount of projects in the pipeline and the amount of ideas flowing into the funnel on a continual basis.

At the end of the day, the goal of this model is to help organizations generate a steady and sustainable flow of ideas.  While process is not the only factor that contributes to idea generation and levels of creativity, it certainly can play a major role in discouraging innovative activity if not implemented correctly.  Like most things in life, balance is key.

Fill Out Our Survey, But Don’t Tell Us What You Really Think

By Anthony Vengrove

I don’t like watching companies completely blow good opportunities to learn and capture insights that can help improve their business.  In my opinion, no one does this better than car dealerships.

If you recently purchased a new car or took one in for service, then you likely have experienced their customer service survey “talk.”  It basically goes this like this: “You should receive a email in a few days requesting that you fill out a customer survey.  Just so you know, anything less than perfection (i.e. a ‘10’) is considered a failure and I won’t get paid my full commission.”  To make matters even more absurd they usually add, “So if you’re not completely satisfied please tell me now so I can resolve your concerns.”

What do most consumers tend to do?  We head for the hills!  The last thing you probably want is to get caught up debating whether your tire rotation was worthy of a ’10.’  So, we go home and usually fill out the survey with glowing reviews because we feel bad the sales associate’s income is tied to such a foolish survey system.

Of course, dealerships that employ this type of “research” are missing out on a great opportunity to get real data and learn from it.   Instead, they’re essentially pressuring their customers into providing positive reviews, probably so they can meet customer service goals from corporate or live under the illusion that their staff is actually providing optimal customer service.  The dealership might feel warm and fuzzy at the end of the year but there’s a huge opportunity cost left on the table.

The main objective of soliciting this type of consumer information is not to confirm that you’re doing a fantastic job, but to understand where you’re underperformingUnderstanding where you are falling short allows you to learn, change and improve.  Anything less is a charade, pure and simple.

Imagine if dealerships instead encouraged honest and candid feedback from their customers?  Imagine if they listened and took action to address poor marks?  Don’t we all know that the biggest opportunities for growth come by learning from our failures?   Feedback is a gift.

Financial transactions in the automotive industry are costly and therefore can be emotionally charged and difficult to navigate.  There’s certainly a huge opportunity to collect a lot of actionable comments and real, raw feedback.  Dealerships might not enjoy hearing it all, but it’s valuable consumer insight.

Dealerships can fix this by incentivizing the right behaviors of their employees and stop penalizing failure.  A ‘pass/fail’ approach will only encourage employees to get the ‘pass’ grade at all costs – and ignore the true opportunities to provide a more consumer-centric experience.