The manageability of innovation

“Innovation” means different things to different people but, generally, it involves the application of novel ideas, products or processes for some purpose. But even if we can agree on “what” it is, do we understand “how” innovation happens?

There is a significant change taking place in the way that the process of innovation is understood. We can put this in the context of developments in the manageability of other areas of business activity in recent times.

“Selling” in the 1970s

Until about the 1970s in most organisations, “selling” was done by salesman who used skills with which they were born, rather than trained; they had a reputation for being overly friendly and free spirits! The concepts of describing the process of “selling”, of managing these people through the process and of training others who were not “born salesmen” to follow it were not given much credibility. But then, at about that time, came the realisation that the activities of selling do follow patterns and we can identify stages and describe sales funnels, measure what is happening, and so on. Nowadays the science of selling has gone much further with ‘relationships selling” as distinct from “transactional selling” and is even being inverted in the form of “soft selling” or should that now be “soft buying”.  It goes beyond selling, organisations have CRM (Customer Relationship Management) processes and systems and are now starting to realise that they need to provide their customers with access to VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) processes and, possibly, systems. There had always been some people who understood it, but there was a development of a general realisation that “selling” and other related areas are manageable!

“Quality” in the 1980s

In another field, “quality”, the same kind of things happened, starting a little later. Until about the 1980s, “quality” was something which was strived for but depended, to some extent, on luck. Some companies were simply better or worse than others; there were good days and bad days, you probably know the kind of attitude. Yes, we do some “quality assurance”, but it is all done at the end of the process and simply involves weeding out the unacceptable results. Then came a whole raft of quality-related initiatives; much of this was driven by rampant fear in the West that Far Eastern manufacturers were going to take over the world of motorcycles, automobiles, semiconductors and everything else with vastly superior processes, people, minds and so on! The world went mad, we even had the British Government setting up a semiconductor manufacturer (Inmos) to compete with the Japanese MITI projects; it started well but fell too far behind, was sold to Thorn EMI who had absolutely no idea what they had got hold of and eventually sold it to Thomson CSF of France who swallowed it and shut it down. This is not unlike the fate of Rover that, with substantial government support, rose from the ashes (yes, yes: “Phoenix”) of BLMC to compete, through collaboration with Honda, with the Japanese motor industry and was eventually sold to and largely shut down by BMW of Germany, we never learn! It was actually crazy, because much of what they were doing was applying the approaches of Edwards Deming, an American born in 1900, who had been preaching this for decades, was in his 80s by this time and barely received any recognition in the West until after his death at age 93! So, we had TQM (Total Quality Management) and other initiatives; people and organisations came to realise that the purpose of quality assurance was not to put the quality in at the end, but to find the quality that had been put in earlier. As with “sales”, some people had known this for ages, but now everyone realised that, in fact, “quality” is manageable!

Other areas

There are, no doubt, other areas in which similar stories have unfolded, or are yet to unfold.

For example, “safety” is an interesting area. There is a prevalence of misallocation of responsibility and attribution of blame in many sectors to which can be attributed a poor record of improvements in safety.

This continues despite the outstanding safety record of the aviation sector based on a wholly different culture. Yet, even the strength of that culture has not prevented NASA losing two space shuttles and their crews in avoidable circumstances in both cases!

“Innovation” now

At last, there is the same kind of awakening of the general community in another field: “innovation”. Until now, in many organisations, the process of innovation has been serendipitous. “Yes, some people and organisations are better at coming up with good ideas and putting them into practice than others, but, heh … we have no idea how they do that!” In some industries, such as pharmaceuticals, and with some notable examples (3M, HP,  Apple and others), the process of innovation is well managed, they benefit enormously from it and have a track record to prove it. Also Everett Rogers researched and wrote about how significant parts of this field back in the 1960s and many others have followed in his footsteps. But, despite this, most people and organisations have continued to see “innovation” as an area that is not manageable in any realistic sense.

As with any other area, at first it seems fairly complex.  So, if it is complex, we need suitably complex understanding of the field in the form of vocabulary, frameworks, processes, measurements and so on if we are to manage it. However, also as with any other area, as we learn about it, we find ways to control and reduce the complexity and we start to make substantial progress. There is a lot to learn and to do!

I acknowledge that much of the credit for sparking my interest in this aspect of the subject belongs to Dean Hering of the OVO Innovation division of NetCentrics as expressed in an interview with David Allen for the GTD Connect community.


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