Over the past five years, I have been fortunate to have witnessed several dozen innovation programs. I have seen the journey of some innovation programs over 3 to 5 years. In this article, I would like to present 4 reasons why I believe innovation programs in India flounder.
Before I present the reasons, let me share the point in the journey where the programs struggle. Here is a simple and useful 5-level maturity framework that I have used to map various programs.
Most of the programs struggle around level-3. The parameters where the difficulty starts are typically: participation (difficult to sustain at 30%), review process (maintain the rigor and rhythm), prototyping (ideas don’t move) etc.
The four reasons why the programs struggle are: (1) Poor program management (2) Lack of emphasis on experimentation (3) Lack of rigor and rhythm in innovation reviews and (4) No champions. Let’s look at each one briefly.
1. Poor program management: Any serious program needs a person or at least a function that holds the roadmap. Innovation program is not a one quarter project. It runs over multiple years. You need people who are constantly watching what is working and what is not working, trying to remove the hurdles which are holding things back, deciding quarterly targets, publishing a dashboard, holding events, running campaigns etc. If you tell someone that management of innovation program is 5% of his KRA, chances are high things will not move. Most innovation programs need a full-time or at least a half-time program manager.
2. Lack of emphasis on experimentation: Ideas by themselves are of little use. You need people to build prototypes and validate some of the assumptions behind the ideas. Many organizations don’t acknowledge experimentation as a legitimate activity. Hence ideas don’t move forward. Some organizations (e.g. Ericsson) offer sponsorship in the form an experiment week to good ideas. In some places, it is considered acceptable to spend part of your work time (say 15-20%) in experimentation (e.g. Google, 3M). Some places organize events such as hackathon or prototyping workshops where ideas take shape.
3. Lack of rigor and rhythm in innovation review: Small ideas can get implemented at team level. However, big ideas need attention, review and investment from business leaders. Moreover, funded ideas need to be reviewed regularly to see if they are stuck somewhere or need to be dropped etc. Many times innovation reviews are not given a priority. They get postponed due to priority scheduling of other meetings. Many times the reviews are too lenient. No criterion is used to kill unviable projects. Sooner or later they run out of oxygen. That creates a lot of bitterness. It is much better to systematically kill non-working ideas so that more fresh ideas can be funded.
4. No champions: I strongly believe in the saying - An idea either finds a champion or dies. A champion commits to a challenge long term and puts his weight behind it. An idea may get stuck due to lack of resources, lack of connections to right people or a narrow vision. A champion pitches in any or all of these areas. This is what George Fernandez did for Konkan railway, what Einstein did for Satyendranath Bose and what Mike Markkula did for Apple. If your organization doesn’t have any champions, then it is going to be difficult for big ideas to move beyond prototyping stage. You should be asking your senior managers, “Which idea are you championing?”