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Why your company is failing to innovate

Originally published on December 4, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/why-your-company-is-failing-to-innovate/article27510973/

An executive recently said to me: “Our company has become very innovative. We have hundreds of ideas that we have analyzed and know are right for our future. We just haven’t been able to bring them to market yet.”

Strike one, strike two and strike three. This executive doesn’t know any more about innovation than he knows about hitting a 100-mph fastball.

Innovation is not simply about having an idea. It’s about commercializing ideas: Bringing them to market in ways that benefit your company and your customers. Having an idea may be insightful or even creative, but it certainly doesn’t make you innovative.

It shouldn’t be this hard. What could be simpler than having an idea and acting on it?

But according to Forbes magazine, it’s just not that simple. In a February, 2015, article entitled “Why U.S. Firms Are Dying: Failure To Innovate,” Steve Denning writes: “A new survey from MindMatters conducted this month suggests that many American companies are still in an ‘innovation crisis.’ ”

In the survey Denning cites, “only 5 per cent of respondents report that workers in innovation programs feel highly motivated to innovate. More than three of four say their new ideas are poorly reviewed and analyzed. And less than a third of the firms surveyed say they regularly measure or report on innovation.”

In my work with large and small companies, across many industries and countries, there seems to be three common and significant barriers to success.

The first barrier is transparency

We are better at hiding our ideas than bringing them to market. We write them on sticky notes, scrawl them on loose pieces of paper, or input them into notes apps on our phones – and then forget all about them. To be an effective innovator, you need inclusive transparency. You need to solicit ideas from your team and post them in a visible place in your office, along with the criteria used to judge them, identification of the leader tasked with bringing each project to market and the progress of each project. With this approach, innovation is an open-and-shared process, with consistent measurement and reporting.

The second barrier is improper resource allocation

Mr. Denning’s articles also reports: “More than four of five respondents (81 per cent) say their firms do not have the resources needed to fully pursue the innovations and new ideas capable of keeping their companies ahead in the competitive global marketplace.” Don’t overpromise. If you have resources to achieve just two projects, choose the best two and commit to them. Too many companies bite off more than they can chew. Trying to do too much usually produces nothing – other than creating one more perceived failure in your organization.

The third barrier is the lack of an innovation culture

Innovation may depend upon the activation of market-ready ideas, but it is driven by organizational attitude. Successful corporations today need an innovation culture that inspires people to seek new possibilities and embrace change in their day-to-day work. As Mr. Denning notes: “The challenge is systemic: While more than half the respondents (55 per cent) say that their organizations treat intellectual property as a valuable resource, only one in seven (16 per cent) believed their employers regarded its development as a mission-critical function. The lack of recognition for contributions to innovation is also striking: Almost half (49 per cent) believe they won’t receive any benefit or recognition for developing successful ideas.”

Don’t expect your team to act on new ideas in their spare time. It sends the message that innovation is a hobby, not a commitment. To achieve breakthroughs, you need to carve time out of your team’s workweek to devote to new projects and directions. (Google famously gives its best engineers a day a week to work on innovation ideas of their own creation.)

Your employees’ innovation successes also need to be recognized, both publicly and at their next performance review. There is nothing better than a public thank you – except maybe a share of the profits – to make people feel appreciated. These moves also reconfirm the organization’s recognition that its own people are the source of future success.

Innovation isn’t an idea on the back of a napkin; it’s a framework of resources and rewards that focuses your entire team on ideation, experimentation and product-market fit. A shared innovation agenda gives your organization greater ability to grow revenue, control costs and engage entire teams. Innovation also improves the customer experience, through the continuous introduction of new and improved product offers and services.

When the innovation process is shared and understood, there’s no more expecting unprepared batters to hit fastballs. When it comes to innovation, it takes a team to hit the ball out of the park.

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Why it’s time to build your own Google lab of wild ideas

Originally published on September 18, 2013 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail.

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I was sitting in the audience of IdeaCity, when tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain made the point that if you want to find a really big idea, you should start by finding a really big problem.

Sounds obvious, right? But the founder of InfoSpace (now Blucora), Intelius and Moon Express went on to say that the big hurdle in finding those big ideas is that people have to re-learn how they see things. Traditionally, we look for opportunities in things –– products, services, supply chains or business models – that we see as broken and in need of fixing. But as Jain pointed out, this doesn’t work any more because “usually things aren’t broken, they’re simply obsolete.”

This is a powerful concept. In today’s business world, it’s rarely obvious when products or systems are broken. But they may be obsolete. The horse is still a viable means of transportation, and film-based cameras can still take great photographs, but economically, both are dead ends. Similarly, how long did newspaper publishers remain blind and deaf to the digital advertising revolution? And how much longer can department stores and the automobile industry ignore their own ‘best before’ date?

Mr. Jain’s insight should be a kick in the pants to those clinging to the old notion, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is a wake-up call to all of us in business today, from solopreneurs to Fortune 500 executives.

Today, existing products, processes and services shouldn’t be revisited because they’re broken; they should be reviewed, criticized and redesigned because technology and competitive forces have put them on the road to obsolescence.

As an entrepreneur and innovation catalyst, I’m always prodding my clients to look for the next, logical opportunity to bring to market or new processes to explore. Every company today must build a business, if not a business model, that embraces, encourages and promotes a rigorous approach to recognizing new market realities.

Don’t take my word for it. The need for proactive innovation was identified in a 2011 Harvard Business Review interview with Columbia professor Rita Gunther McGrath, who referred to “the increasing speed of everything,” and the emerging notion of inter-industry competition and disruption.

“Competition is coming from unexpected places,” McGrath said. “Who could have anticipated that the iPad’s success would put all kinds of display devices – like electronic photo frames – out of business?”

If you’re counting on entrepreneurial energy to drive your business forward, don’t just look to the top. Innovation depends on engagement and inclusiveness. It requires the executive suite working with middle management and valuing input from the lower ranks, which are usually the most customer-facing. The best innovators also create channels for learning directly from their customers – and yes, they value criticism. Innovation often comes from small teams that tend to work against the company culture rather than with its blessing.

Disruption is upon us, whether we like it or not. A New York Times article described “Google’s Lab of Wildest Dreams.” The story noted, “in an undisclosed Bay Area location where robots run free, the future is being imagined … It’s a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating … These are just a few of the dreams being chased at Google X, the clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas.“

More conventional innovators are also gearing up. 3M says it has Innovation Centers of Technical Excellence in over 30 countries. “Through dynamic displays and interactive, hands-on demonstrations, customers come to our innovation centers to collaborate with 3M experts and explore creative solutions to help their businesses grow and succeed.” I was surprised to learn, through 3M’s Twitter feed, that the company introduces more than 500 new products each year .

While most entrepreneurs and managers can’t all afford the Google X dream, or even a single innovation centre, we can still tap the resources that we have, and they are not insignificant.

Begin by transforming your regular sales and marketing meetings into business development meetings by including innovation on every agenda. Think big, think different and think customer. Don’t limit yourself.

The first step is to task all team members to bring in new ideas – exciting things they see happening both within your marketplace and in other industries. Encourage everyone to attend business conferences, seminars, workshops, and peer groups, and to listen more closely (and more often) to customers in order to increase idea flow and generation. This step keeps new ideas and opportunities on the front burner every week, rather than relegate them to the old once-a-year corporate retreat.

The second step is to identify the ideas that your team believes have merit and to assign each project a leader or, as I prefer to call it, an ‘opportunity champion.’ Have them approach the opportunity with the same rigour you would any traditional project: present status reports and solicit input from the group. This helps you keep track of ideas and live projects, and also builds a more engaged team – there’s nothing quite as motivating as involvement and feedback to let people know that their voices are being heard and their ideas implemented.

And don’t be afraid to bring in some of your customers for a show-and-tell, as 3M does. Customers are the people who buy what you sell. Their vote actually counts the most in the room.

In 2011, I wrote a column for The Globe & Mail entitled, “Make yourself obsolete, or someone else will.“ Today that article should probably be titled, “You’re already obsolete. What are you waiting for?”

Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works Inc. , is a branding and innovation thought leader who helps organizations reimagine their futures. His second co-authoured book on innovation, Cause a Disturbance ( www.causeadisturbance.com ), is due to be released Fall 2013.

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Google Art Project and AGO Collaboration a Masterpiece

Innovation Insights
One of a series by Ken Tencer, Spyder Works CEO

AGO

A crucial part of the whole innovation process is celebrating the wins. Recognizing a brilliant idea can spark others’ imaginations and turn innovation into Win-novation™.

Is it possible to replicate the feeling you get when standing in front of a compelling piece of art? The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is willing to try. The Gallery has chosen to differentiate its brand by participating in the Google Art Project. This project gives viewers high resolution access to exhibits in more than 150 museums in 40 countries around the world. Currently the AGO is the only Canadian institution taking part.

Visitors can surf into the Gallery using Google technology and view artworks with brushstroke level detail. Creating a unique offering for users, the tool successfully reinforces the idea that the AGO is a fun place to visit filled with beautiful works of art. Google Art Project takes the best the Gallery has to offer and makes it accessible. It takes advantage of a visual technology that wasn’t even available a few years ago to completely re-define the appreciation and accessibility of fine art.

What innovative lesson does Google Art Project and AGO collaboration teach us? To me, it’s an artful example of innovation begetting innovation. Someone invents ultra high definition visual technology and Google realizes that the subtle genius of the world’s great works of art are suddenly visible to the virtual eye. And the innovation will continue. My guess is that there are emerging artists being amazed and inspired right now. We may see a revelation revolution.

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