Design Thinking, Lean Startup, or Agile? The answer is…
Some people dismiss them all, some prefer one over another, and some suggest mushing them all together into a delicious innovation cocktail. There are complicated charts and graphs to explain how they flow and intersect. Often, this turns out to be no more than an intellectual exercise that does nothing to help people do their jobs.
When innovators are embarking on a new journey, the compulsion to name and define things as step one is where the problems start. “First, we need to define innovation.” Too much time is spent debating definitions and processes. There are grudge matches about what type of innovation one function or business unit does versus another. There are major efforts to over-engineer processes, creating unnecessary complexity and waste — the meetings and committees and documents to sort it a;; out — before any innovating happens.
People are left wondering “Why is it so hard to innovate at this company?”
We took a different approach when scaling an innovation culture initiative to business units across Coca-Cola. It started by asking “Who is the customer and what is it we can do for them that they can’t do for themselves?”
Whether you’ve been promoted into an innovation leadership role or you want to launch a guerilla innovation army, spend time talking to people to figure out what’s really holding back the innovation flood gates.
Determine who cares and why
Internal stakeholders, leaders, middle managers, innovation councils — they all have their own special challenges, hopes, pet projects and dreams. Which one are you trying to engage? Commit to talking to at least 10 per week until you can’t learn anything new.
Consider each person’s situation. Do they have a new project? A new role? Are they frustrated with their current job and looking for opportunities to advance their career? Determine what’s in it for them — what is their currency? Recognition, a promotion, a new skill to add to their LinkedIn profile? How is their performance measured? Will they get their bonus or not?
Here’s how to ask for input:
“I’m working on a development project to understand how our company innovates. As a leader of innovation, I’d love your input. Do you have time for a 20 minute chat?”
People love being consulted as experts and giving their opinions.
What to ask them:
What’s the hardest part about getting your job done?
What worries you about meeting your objectives for this year?
How will success be measured?
Another approach is to propose a solution and ask them to tell you why it won’t work — you’ll get at the heart of people’s frustrations and start to realize where you can make a difference.
If you’re doing more listening than talking, people will tell you what’s broken if you ask the right questions. It’s enlightening what you often hear repeated:
- I’m spread across too many projects and I don’t know how to prioritize.
- There’s no mechanism for people to rotate between short-term projects in order to gain the internal knowledge and experience they need to innovate successfully.
- I don’t feel empowered to make decisions.
- We over-define everything and it takes forever to launch new products.
- We are a buy vs. build culture.
Now it’s time to act like an entrepreneur yourself. Take what you learned during these interviews, pick a common and specific problem that presents a major frustration for people (and in this case, keeps innovative ideas from getting to market), and deliver a solution that will be useful.
Forget all the lingo you find out there. It all has baggage and you run the risk of misinterpretation. Instead, use the words you heard in the interviews. When you can promote new ways of working using the vocabulary of your “customers”, it’s an easy sell. It won’t be met with the same kind of skepticism new innovation teams sometimes face — another training, another workshop, another process. Sometimes these innovation philosophies use language that is very uncomfortable to the organization, like “fail fast” or minimum viable product. Few are comfortable with terms like this, let alone know how to incorporate them into their jobs.
Bottom line: It works
If you really want to help people deliver innovation, don’t start by locking yourself into a philosophy. Offer something that helps your fellow employees feel empowered to deliver value to customers.
If you don’t take the time to do this, you will have people working against you. You’ll spend all of your time trying to align people and explain why you’re doing something, seeking to convince them that they need you, but they won’t hear a word you’re saying. You may as well be shouting the definition of innovation into a black hole.
Carie Davis is a former Coca-Cola Global Director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship. She started Your Ideas Are Terrible and The Enterprise Growth Institute and serves as Program Director of the BridgeCommunity. She works with global companies to implement tools & systems for a steady flow of validated ideas.