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.
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.