“We used to be innovative before the pandemic”. It is not uncommon to hear this in the corporate world when I visit clients now working in hybrid mode. That is not surprising if we look at innovativeness as a kind of stamina. It is similar to saying “I used to run 10K comfortably once upon a time”. Building and sustaining stamina is a sweaty process and needs discipline. If you don’t practice, your stamina goes down. Going to the gym helps or having a trainer or a buddy to exercise with help. Analogously, what kind of enablers help build innovation stamina? Let’s look at 3 of them in this article.
Dashboard and review: Smartwatches have made parameters like the number of steps per day easily accessible. A gymgoer may watch a number of push-ups and pull-ups, bench-press weights and repetitions, etc. A dashboard makes a big difference when it comes to stamina building. However, we need to differentiate between a goal of running 10K in under 1 hour and doing 6K runs three times a week. So, a good dashboard should have an outcome goal (e.g. run 10K in under 1 hour) and a process goal (e.g. run 6K 3 times a week). Similarly, it helps to have outcome goals related to innovation stamina such as idea pipeline (no of ideas, ideas per person per year, no of big bets), idea velocity measured through experiments and customer validations, business impact measured through savings, revenue and profit, and participation measured through percentage of team members participating in innovation activity, etc. And it helps to have process goals such as the number of brainstorms, number of challenge campaigns, number of hackathons, etc. I have presented a few examples of dashboard parameters I gathered from annual reports here and also presented process goals here.
A dashboard without a review is of limited use. Hence, organizations need to review the innovation dashboard with rigor and rhythm (e.g. quarterly). This is where tough questions get asked and budget allocation / re-allocation happens. Here is an example of how Jeff Bezos reviews a big bet like Alexa and another one on how innovation reviews happened at P&G under A G Lafley.
Gyms and coaches: As I go out to jog in the morning, I see many people carrying their gym bags and heading for a workout. For many, a gym and perhaps a coach make a difference in bringing discipline to their stamina-building process. For innovation, gyms come mostly in the form of laboratories. There are different types of labs. For example, a tinkerers’ lab may house various tools for wood-cutting, metal-cutting, circuit-building, CAD modeling, 3D printing, etc. under one roof. Alternately, a technology-focused lab may focus on technology like quantum computing, IoT sensors, AR/VR, nano-materials for water purification, etc. A design studio creates space for using various materials and tools for prototype designs.
An innovation sandbox also has high experimentation capacity built through a lab but in addition, it has constraints coming from market use cases, cost, and product performance. For example, when the Lego company decides to create a center focused on creating a bio-plastic for building lego bricks, it is working under various constraints like malleability of the material, ability to hold paint, cost, and perhaps a few more.
A gym is far more effective with coaches and it welcomes newcomers and trains them. Likewise, a lab is more effective when there are coaches/mentors for newcomers.
Events and celebrations: Many runners get motivated when they decide to participate in an event such as a 10K run or a marathon. They form groups and practice together for months for this event. While such events are competitive for many, for most people the cooperative spirit may dominate the practice.
Companies also organize events related to innovation that instill the spirit of competition and cooperation. For example, there are day-long or week-long events showcasing promising ideas or prototypes. There are events like Innovation Day/week, Engineers’ Day, technology conferences, hackathons, challenge campaigns running over a month, etc.
Newsletters socialize these events. They showcase not only the winners but also the participants helping each other. Events generate stories that are discussed over lunch and they may motivate skeptics to participate in the next event.
Events can lose steam if they turn into just social events. The ability to spot good challenges, ideas, and prototypes and convert them into proposals, papers, and formal projects is important.
To summarize, we looked at three enablers of innovation stamina: dashboard and review, gyms and coaches, and events and celebrations.
Starting an innovation initiative: An ABCD approach, Sep 25, 2015. The enablers mentioned in the above article could be seen as an extension of the ABCD approach with an E for Enablers.