Innovation and Organizational Learning Pathways and Pitfalls: Part 3 of 3
"In examining the history of the visionary companies, we were struck by how often they made some of their best moves not by detailed strategic planning, but rather by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and - quite literally - accident. What looks in hindsight like a brilliant strategy was often the residual result of opportunistic experimentation and purposeful accidents." - James C. Collins and Jerry Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
• Make sure that you and people throughout your organization spend lots of time in external benchmarking and "corporate tourism" mode, looking for good ideas to swipe. Many of the opportunities or problems you're facing now are old hat to somebody somewhere. Learning from other people's experiences - both the successes and the failures - can take years and millions of dollars off your learning curve.
• Build strong personal, team, and organization measurements and feedback loops. If you don't know how you're doing, you can't improve. If you want more innovation, set up measurements to chart your progress. Lack of feedback is one of the biggest contributors to learning disorders.
• Develop strategic alliances and partnership with organizations providing complimentary products and services in your target market. If the fit is right, it can be a great way to extent your products and services, reduce your own development risk, and learn.
• How do you deal with defeats, failures, and setbacks? In his work to understand why "the smartest people find it the hardest to learn," Professor Chris Argyris concludes, "because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the 'blame' on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most."
• Ensure that your reward and recognition processes encourage cooperation, open learning, and innovation across boundaries and departmental lines. If you're not sure, ask.
• The experimenting, piloting, and clumsy tries mind set must pervade all parts and areas of your organization. The includes human resource systems, training, administrative support services, management systems and processes, product and development, customer service, purchasing, supplier management, external partnerships, and so on.
• Consider setting targets for innovation. 3M measures management performance and sets bonuses based upon the percentage of revenues that come from products and services that didn't exist three years ago.
• Put an intense focus on shortening your product and service development cycles. Radical improvement (aim for a ten times reduction) of these key processes will make your organization a leading innovator that leaves your competition choking on your dust. All your supporting management systems will have to be realigned to sustain this change.
• Develop prototype and pilots in parallel. Avoid committing yourself to any one as long as you can without spreading your support to thin so that none can survive (a tricky paradox to manage). Once you've selected the approach or product you're going to develop further into stages three and four, you might keep your options open with a few quiet pilots still bubbling in the background.
• Appointed champions and assigned skunk works rarely work. They haven't got the passion and commitment to beat the odds of an innovation surviving the bureaucracy, inertia, and threatened power bases. These people rise to the surface in environments that welcome and support them. Successful venture capitalists invest in people, not promising companies, products, or markets. A key criterion in deciding whether to support an innovation that is the passion of its champion.
• Use many small mistakes to avoid the deadly big one. Experiment early and often on a small scale. You want a series of ten $50,000 learning experiences that notch your learning forward rather than one big $5 million flop.
• If innovation is truly important to you, hire and promote unconventional thinkers, "boat rockers", and passionate people who have a history of successfully bucking the system.
• The flatter, more decentralized and team-based your organization is, the higher your levels of innovation will be. Head office and management need to serve the operational and improvement teams working to find better ways to produce products and enhance service. The more people feel they're running their own show; the more they'll act like entrepreneurial partners.
• Exploring, searching, creating, learning, and innovating are critical on-going activities in finding the best routes to higher performance. This calls for leadership that sees beyond what is to what could be.