Looks to me like the curtain on the innovation theater is about to come down. At 1871, the Chicago incubator I ran, we called the constant parade of well-intentioned but largely clueless visitors and the accompanying startup charade the "entrepreneurial petting zoo". The visitors' vain hopes were that, in the course of viewing such a serious concentration of entrepreneurs, and, by some process akin to osmosis, a little innovation juice would rub off on them and maybe a radical idea or two would mystically emerge. Good luck with that. You're a lot more likely to be hit by lightning which, when you think about it, would certainly be more stimulating. There's got to be a better and smarter way to create a culture of innovation and help your people get headed in the right direction.

There's no magic or madness to successful innovation, but there is a lot of method, preparation and patience. The best people in the innovation business practice, iterate and improve their programs all the time. Effective innovation is a constant, company-wide, process, not a project or a department, which you must (a) authentically commit to, (b) aggressively organize around, (c) systemically implement, integrate, and enforce throughout your operations, and then (d) measure against real metrics on a continuing basis.  It's not some piecemeal placebo or a quick fix panacea. And innovation is also not about trying to move the needle tomorrow. Small, sure, incremental steps and a celebration of early victories and results are the way to go. Good things still take time.

Smart innovation is based on an overall philosophy and a commitment to try to get a little bit better across the board, every day, and all the time - not a one-shot deal or a moonshot deal. Innovation is about what I call "successive approximation" as opposed to "postponed perfection,"which never happens anyway, is impossibly costly, and isn't worth waiting for -- even if it ever showed up.

As a general proposition, in radically-changing times like these, where the rate of change continues to accelerate, waiting almost never gets you to a better result. Elaborate planning, extensive documentation, and expensive research are all forms of denial, postponement and mental pollution. In the meantime, critical time passes and opportunities abate, necessary changes aren't made, key people and partners depart for brighter pastures, and pressing problems aren't addressed.  Sadly, those problems won't lessen or disappear, they'll propagate and worsen.

So, the most important thing to do for any organization anxious to change for the better is to get the process started. But too many companies are doing the same old things and expecting different results and we all know that simply doesn't happen. Try as you might, you can't harangue your folks into changing their long-held habits especially those that worked pretty well in the past, but which are doomed to fail tomorrow. Saying doesn't make it so. However huge your hammer is, it's still impossible to nail Jell-O to a tree.

And if you don't have an overall plan to successfully launch your new initiatives, to assure that your people throughout the organization are invested in the process, and to make certain that the changes you need to make will last, everything else doesn't matter.  That's regardless of how many highbrow courses your people must sit through, whatever attractive financial incentives you introduce, or how many inspirational notes and memos you send to the troops.

You've got to get things right at the beginning; speed doesn't matter unless you're headed in the right direction. Off by an inch, miss by a mile. So, it's critical to start straight and strong. The ultimate goal is to have the innovations you implement stick. You need to be all about gaining and growing traction and assuring long-term sustainability- otherwise you're just treading water, upsetting your people for no good reason, and wasting a lot of time and money. Finis origine pendet-- the end depends upon the beginning.

There's a simple problem with the traditional approach that most businesses are still pursuing--and not merely that the traditional approach doesn't last over time or produce real results. Much more insidious is the fact that it destroys your company's culture. False starts, repeated half-assed attempts, and continued failures send a message throughout your company that senior management doesn't really care about innovation and change - even though your best and brightest employees absolutely do. They all know that, if your business doesn't embrace change, it will eventually die and, quite frankly, they're not likely to stick around for the slow and painful funeral.

Great companies and cultures are built when the employees sincerely believe that their leaders are putting them first. You may have your own reservations and even some doubts, but you've got to have faith in the people you're leading. Your job is to get your people from where they are to where they've never been and to show them a vision and a path to get there. You don't do that by sending Sam and Mabel to San Francisco for a two-day strategy session. The sour dough bread may be great, but the substance is increasingly suspect.

You need a better and smarter plan than simply shipping a few of the folks to the latest and greatest seminar to drink the new Kool-Aid and hope they come back and inspire the team. They'll return only to find that they're trying to push a rope and convince a bunch of non-believers to change in ways that they're not even sure their management believes in. A couple of converts can't change a company's culture by themselves. Save your breath and your money - it doesn't work. I'm not certain that it ever did, but it's DOA today for sure.

The good news is that I've seen a better solution. Tom Kuczmarski, the founder of Kuczmarski Innovation, has taught innovation and executive education for more than 30 years at topflight universities to more than 7,500 leaders from a wide variety of industries. Over the last few years, he had consistently observed a recurring structural problem and he's figured out a better way to go. Companies weren't getting their innovation efforts off on the right foot because they didn't understand the four basic requirements for long-term sustainable success:

(1) Alignment- Senior leaders need to visibly commit to and participate in/attend initial innovation training sessions and final presentations because the depth and breadth of company-wide engagement is critical; step one is for the senior management participants to define and develop a clear strategy and some target opportunities;

(2) Instruction- Multiple junior team members attend training sessions where they learn to apply the best new practices and tools for identifying specific opportunities and implementing innovative solutions within their organizations for the precise problem areas identified by senior management; step two trains the innovation team and points them in the right direction as well as coaching them along the way;

(3) Application- Actual problem areas and potential solutions within the organization are identified in progress discussions between the senior management attendees and the innovation team members and specific innovation initiatives are authorized, described and developed; step three advances the process and makes the proposed solutions concrete and real rather than dealing in theoretical situations or wishful thinking;

(4) Activation and Implementation- Team members return to the organization with a plan, timetable, management endorsement and support, and the tools they need to be successful in addressing actual problems and issues and, more importantly, overcoming resistance, inertia and internal obstacles; step four delivers the expected and sustainable results.

Kuczmarski Innovation has developed a new two-phase course ("Managing and Activating Innovation") for training leaders throughout an organization to develop readily achievable and sustainable innovation solutions for their businesses, which incorporates all the foregoing objectives. It avoids many of the past cultural, sponsorship and implementation problems and delivers both results and a demonstrable ROI.  It's a brief, practical, and hands-on program that combines traditional faculty and experienced industry professionals. Full disclosure: I've seen the materials and I'm hoping to be one of the lecturers in the program myself this summer.

But, in the final analysis, I think it works so well because it quickly connects and engages a critical mass of interested parties across various levels of the business and because it sends a most important and empowering message throughout the culture: the best leaders don't create followers; they create more leaders.

Published on: Feb 26, 2019
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