It’s difficult to achieve a goal without a plan. Intuitively we know this. We don’t expect to lose weight by not changing the way we eat or exercise. We don’t expect to learn French by purchasing Rosetta Stone and letting it collect dust on a shelf. Yet, when it comes to innovation, this is exactly what we see companies do with their innovation goals. A McKinsey survey found that although more than 70% of senior executives said that innovation will be one of their top three sources of growth, 65% of those same respondents said they were disappointed in their ability to innovate. Innovation can be blocked or impeded by any number of organizational flaws, but in my experience one of the biggest reasons companies fail is that they don’t prioritize the work needed to succeed, namely innovative experiments and projects.
As organizations mature, they refine their processes to reduce risk and improve reliable delivery. We see this in annual portfolio prioritization processes, complete with business cases and 100% allocation of both people and money to projects for the coming year. But what happens when a new business opportunity comes up? You trade resources from an approved project to allow work on your new opportunity. What about when you want to experiment with a new innovative technology? Chances are that you’re told to write a business case, which doesn’t get approved because you can’t promise new revenue.
A slightly more progressive leader might assure you that if a new opportunity comes up, that they will “find resources” for you. Let’s assume they really can get you the money and people you require. How important does your initiative feel when it’s being handled as an exception instead of an expectation? Can a company that truly values innovation expect so little of it that they are comfortable paying for it with the corporate equivalent of checking the couch for spare change?
Innovative experimentation shouldn’t require you to trade budget with active projects or hunt for resources. It needs to be an expected, planned part of doing business in a competitive market. For companies that want to bring their innovation practice out of the shadows, there are a few places to start. First, look at how you allocate people and budget to projects. As I mentioned before, if you have an annual portfolio prioritization process in which you allocate 100% of your people and money to projects, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to reserve some resources for innovative experiments. Some companies do this through a dedicated innovation or “skunkworks” team, while others simply hold back a percentage of their time and money to be used when the next project comes along.
Another thing to consider is making sure that the top talent in your organization is not over-burdened. Key employees are often in high demand, and when that occurs it’s all work all the time. This is a problem because these same employees are often your most likely innovators, or they at least have the skills needed to run an innovation experiment. To strike a balance between delivery and innovation, consider reserving a portion of your key talent’s time for side projects so as to allow them to think about something other than their day-to-day work. Some companies also find value in job rotation for key talent. Exposing these employees to other parts of your business not only helps with retention and leadership development but may also spark the next big idea in your company.
Start treating innovation and experimentation as the rule, not the exception, and commit to your innovation strategy by prioritizing the work it requires. It’s not going to happen on its own!