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What does "Innovation" really mean?
How to insure a success with your clients

By Brianna Sylver

The term "innovation"— along with it's shopworn adjective, "innovative" and it's breathless verb, "innovate!"— has become the rallying cry of every product manager, the pursuit of every design consultant, the autocomplete of every press release writer. The word's been wrapped around everything from the Apple iPod to a new template in Microsoft Word. So how can one term be used to describe such vastly different things?

In essence, what does "innovation" really mean?

Technically, "innovation" is defined merely as "introducing something new;" there are no qualifiers of how ground-breaking or world-shattering that something needs to be—only that it needs to be better than what was there before. And that's where the trouble starts when an organization requests "innovation services" from a consulting firm. Exactly what are they really requesting? The fact is, innovation means different things to different people.

Technically, "innovation" is defined merely as "introducing something new." There are no qualifiers of how ground-breaking or world-shattering that something needs to be; only that it needs to be better than what was there before.

Understanding the motivation
It is critical to establish a baseline read of what innovation really means to the hiring organization (or client), so that the "innovation process" can be uniquely— and appropriately— tailored to address the specific challenges and requirements of that organization. But getting this foundational knowledge of what an "acceptable output of an innovation project" is...well, more difficult than one would suspect. It sounds obvious, but in order to define what innovation means to the client, the consulting firm contracted for the innovation services first needs to understand the client's motivation for seeking innovation services. Corporations typically seek innovation services in response to one of three situations:

1. They are currently engulfed in the flames of the "burning platform" (as Russ Ward, Director of New Product Development at IMP, Inc. calls it). Their profits are dropping, their products are not selling and they don't know what to do about it.

2. They have emerged from the days of the "burning platform" and have come to understand that innovation is not a start/stop process, but an evolving one that requires constant attention.

3. They are a leader in their industry and are determined to stay there. Failure is accepted within their organization because they understand and fully embrace the numbers game in product development.

Each of these situations generates a different definition (and role) for innovation within the hiring organization, and consequently defines a different landscape for how to manage the gig. For companies engulfed in the flames of the "burning platform," they've found innovation in a reactive mode. Speed is of the most concern, and "innovation" in this context often means taking the me-too approach to what their competitors are doing. For organizations that have recently emerged from the days of the "burning platform," their focus is on the quick hits and small wins— they're thankful that they have found some stability within their organization, but the days of job insecurity are too close for them to feel comfort in thinking "blue sky." For the industry leaders, they've usually got time— and the benefits of positive cash flow— on their side. They can think strategically about where they are today, and where they want to move in the future. They still need the small wins, but they can afford to think more tactically about how those successes contribute to a larger corporate strategy.

We've all heard more than a couple stories of consulting companies taking a project and running with it, only to come back with fantastic, ground-breaking ideas that the hiring organization could do absolutely nothing with.

Understanding the tolerance level
So, why is it so important to understand their motivation for hiring innovation services? Because their motivation (derived from their situation) defines their "innovation tolerance," which in turn provides insight into the success criteria for the project. By understanding the level of innovation being sought by the client, it becomes easier to frame up the kind of deliverable that makes the most sense, and ultimately, that makes the most business sense. This kind of analysis helps determine if the project needs to be geared toward discovering the breakthrough, revolutionary product in its category (the iPod), or if the conservative, low/no cost solution is the more appropriate direction to drive (the new Word template).

We've all heard more than a couple stories of consulting companies taking a project and running with it, only to come back with fantastic, ground-breaking ideas that the hiring organization could do absolutely nothing with. The research, documents and prototypes become shelved, and everyone leaves the situation resentful. The hiring organization feels like they didn't get the value that they deserved for the price tag they paid; the consulting firm feels as though their efforts were undervalued, and that the client wasn't nearly as progressive as they had hoped (or promised).

Does each organization have a right to feel slighted? Perhaps, but the true lesson here is that the two companies weren't working towards common goals. "How would you approach this project without us?" is the question that Maya Design, a design consultancy and technology research lab in Pittsburgh, PA, asks their prospective clients. David Bishop, the Director of Human Sciences, shares that "the question, while simplistic, reveals a lot about their client's psyche— how systemically the company views their operations and their capabilities for working across departments within their organization." Charged with this knowledge, Maya can design a study targeted to align with their client's current innovation tolerance, while exposing them to strategies for progressing them along the innovation continuum.

So, for instance, if an organization responds to Maya's question by stating that "some engineers would probably get together and develop the next version of the product," then it's quite likely that that organization has a product-focused, small improvement mind-set towards innovation. This contrasts with an organization that may respond to that question differently, by stating that in the absence of their services they would "put together a cross-functional team designed to represent the user, business and technology perspectives of the issue under discussion." This organization's ability to organize and coordinate that cross-functional team means that that organization has prepped themselves to entertain innovation initiatives that require more buy-in and support of other departments. The difference between these two viewpoints of innovation is the difference between taking an incremental versus paradigm shift approach to innovation.

"The levels of risk accepted by the executive leaders of the organization define the level of innovation that a company is willing to commit to." If the executive management supports innovation holistically and fosters a creative climate in the organization, then recommendations and solutions closer to the revolution end of the innovation spectrum might be appropriate to share with this client.

Understanding the organization's culture
Of course, knowing a company's motivation and tolerance for innovation are two big hurdles in the race. But the third is perhaps the most critical: understanding the political infrastructure of the company, and the personal innovation philosophies of the executive management, are absolutely key to understanding the organization's readiness for change, and their ability and willingness to implement recommendations. Without this piece of knowledge, you can be a sitting duck.

There's probably a bit of dirty laundry here, but best practice is for the client to be open and transparent about how decisions get made within their organization, about the past attempts to solve the problem (both failures and successes, and everyone's respective understanding of why), and—here's the laundry part—about any individuals within the company that will likely try to sabotage the effort. Charged with this knowledge, consultants can better understand how to navigate the political waters with awareness, and will have a higher probability of creating recommendations and developing project deliverables that can gain traction within the hiring organization.

Likewise, it's imperative for a consultant to be made aware of the personal innovation philosophy of the executive management. As Jason Schickerling, the Director of Core Ladder Products at Werner Ladder Company, succinctly states, "The levels of risk accepted by the executive leaders of the organization define the level of innovation that a company is willing to commit to." If the executive management supports innovation holistically and fosters a creative climate in the organization, then recommendations and solutions closer to the revolution end of the innovation spectrum might be appropriate to share with this client. Conversely, an organization that defines innovation in a more compartmental fashion may experience extreme discomfort in stepping too far outside their existing product lines.

For companies engulfed in the flames of the "burning platform," they've found innovation in a reactive mode. Speed is of the most concern, and "innovation," in this context, often means taking the me-too approach to what their competitors are doing.

Hire a coach; conduct a workshop
Hiring organizations can help consultants get the lay of the land by assigning a dedicated project sponsor or "coach" to the project. This sponsor is the touch point into the organization for the consultant, and should be capable of providing the background information needed so that everyone is always progressing towards common goals. Additionally, the project "coach" should be of a high enough level within the organization that their sponsoring of the project ensures that the initiative has been defined as a priority within the organization. Ward of IMP, Inc., makes the valuable observation that it is often the high-ticket consulting projects that get the attention of the executive management— often being conducted with the large consulting agencies— while the smaller consulting firms often have their projects sponsored on more of a middle-management level. This doesn't mean that the projects conducted by the small consulting firms don't have equal value to offer to the organization, but it may mean that the project sponsor within the hiring organization needs to be keener at communicating the progress and output of the project across the organization. If a consultant is clued into the priorities of the executive management, they can better assist their project sponsor in positioning the project within the organization.

The team at Cloverleaf Innovation, an innovation firm located in Evanston, IL, understands that multi-disciplinary teams, comprised of members of the hiring organization, are the keys to making impact within an organization. For this reason, they conduct a "Discovery Workshop" at the start of each of their projects. This workshop engages all critical partners and stakeholders of the project together to think about the topic at hand. By soliciting multiple perspectives from the hiring organization at the outset of the project (and throughout the process), Cloverleaf is able to get a good read on what the innovation tolerance of the organization is as a whole (i.e. the spectrum of acceptable solutions to the problem), while creating an open and collaborative environment conducive to fresh thinking.

Final thoughts
Good consultants understand that no one knows their business better than those who live in it daily, and, as a result, take more of a facilitation role in helping an organization meld their internal and competitive knowledge with the expertise that they have been hired to bring to the table. They work toward understanding the environment, culture, and politics of the organization, and qualify the tolerance level of the organization for change. All of this requires an openness and a transparency that is hard to attain, but critical to insuring success. Without understanding where an organization is, and where they have come from, it is impossible to lay a path for the future without coming off as the stereotypical, all-knowing, flippant consultant ready to solve everyone's problems without having a clue about the internal workings of the hiring organization.

And after you've covered those bases, THEN you can talk about "innovation" in a way that isn't hollow and reflexive; that doesn't confuse the consultant's philosophy of innovation with that of the hiring organization.



Brianna is the founder of Sylver Consulting (http://www.sylverconsulting.com), a product innovation firm that assists organizations in finding opportunity sweet spots between their customers¹ needs, business objectives and innovation capabilities. In addition, she offers her expertise as an adjunct faculty professor at the Institute of Design, IIT in Chicago teaching courses in communication design and human factors.