I'm a big fan of Stephen Covey's thinking, especially the "urgent vs important" dilemma.  If you are familiar with this you know his thinking is that we spend far too much time on urgent issues, and not nearly enough time on important matters.  Innovation faces this dilemma in spades.

If you can find an entrepreneur, a business owner or a corporate executive who doesn't think innovation is important, you've found a unicorn.  However, no matter how important innovation is in any business of any size, there are always a thousand other items that surpass it in urgency.  This is why everyone talks about innovation and so few organizations do it well.  Innovation is always important but rarely urgent.

Some kinds of urgency is better than others

When I talk to customers about this dilemma, I also talk about one other factor--some types of urgency are better than others.  If innovation becomes urgent because you recognize you've fallen far behind your competitors and must immediately catch up, and innovation seems the only way to catch up, your urgency may simply be a recipe for disaster.  Trying to catch up or leapfrog from far behind using unfamiliar tools and methods, hoping for a miraculous, disruptive solution is a pipe dream in most cases.

This means that urgency and importance must be part of the strategy, focus and culture of the organization.  Urgency shouldn't result from fear or falling behind. Urgency about innovation should be baked into the strategic plans and operational goals.  This means it should be planned and budgeted for, and activities and outcomes measured and reported.

What gets measured...

Another trite but true saying:  what gets measured gets managed.  If you suffer from the urgent vs important dilemma for innovation, simply up your game in strategic and operational planning.  Set specific goals for the number of incremental and disruptive innovation projects or activities, provide funding and then carefully manage the reporting and metrics.  Good managers know that they will need to align to strategy and even more importantly will try to achieve their measures and metrics.  Good plans and careful oversight, reporting against goals will create urgency to match innovation's importance.

The other option to increase urgency is to create a 'burning platform" that forces people to do things differently, but the burning platform must be real, near term and important in order to create enough urgency.  Plus, you run the risk of becoming the manager who cried wolf if the platforms don't actually burn.

More urgency, more innovation

If you want more innovation, you must create more urgency.  Innovation will always be important.  Urgency can be artificially constructed, brought about by an external threat or existential crisis, or generated internally by strategies, measures, metrics and associated compensation.  But you must create more urgency about innovation if you hope to create new and valuable solutions.

Published on: Nov 1, 2017