Making Innovation Seem Easy is Hard Work

Ann All
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Five Innovations that Could Change the Way We Live, Work and Play

In my post on Google's leadership change, I mentioned a column by's Chris O'Brien in which he listed five challenges for incoming CEO Larry Page. One of them was product development, which has taken on a "spastic quality," wrote O'Brien. He said Page will have to "find a way to channel the freewheeling innovative instinct into a more efficient system for creating new products. And he needs to build a culture that can execute these ideas and turn them into successes once they do launch."


This is not a new concern. I wrote about Google's apparent lack of focus in 2008 and its poor track record of converting employees' ideas into marketable products in 2007.


Google isn't the company that struggles with innovation. An MIT Sloan Management Review article by academics Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and J.-L. Barsoux shares five innovation myths gleaned from their research. They all fall under the umbrella of what I'd call an uber-myth: that innovation spontaneously happens. (They call it "the eureka moment," and list it as the first of their five myths.)


Truth is, it isn't generating innovative ideas that's hard, it's executing on those ideas. The latter stages of the innovation process, where ideas are worked up and developed in detail, is where most companies struggle. When they asked 123 managers to evaluate how effective they were at each stage in the innovation value chain, most said they were relatively good at generating new ideas but their performance dropped for every successive stage of the chain.


The "eureka" myth is why so many companies are drawn to workshops that gather large numbers of people with the aim of generating new ideas, the authors say. Two problems with such events: Companies underestimate the amount of work they require. They can be disempowering if companies lack the ability to act upon the ideas. The keys to making them work are clearly establishing the problems you are trying to solve, putting on a workshop only if you believe that a lack of ideas is the problem, and being prepared to devote plenty of time and effort into follow-up work. An example offered is IBM, which found it needed a team of 60 researchers to sort through 30,000 posts received over a 72-hour period during an online "Innovation Jam" in 2006.


Myth No. 2 is that social interaction will transform the innovation process. (Or just about any process for that matter, with all of the talk about social business process management.) Many companies are creating online forums where employees and others can contribute and discuss ideas. Two problems with the forums: It can be tough to maintain participation. Many of the ideas will be "off-topic, half-baked or irrelevant," say the authors. Such forums work best when looking for a specific answer to a question, or when trying to generate a wide variety of views about existing ideas. A workshop with face-to-face interaction is better for building on ideas. I shared some great tips on jumpstarting an online community in a post from 2009.


Myth No. 3 is open innovation is the future. The obvious benefit of crowdsourcing innovation is it generates a much larger pool of ideas than can be done internally. But the challenges include investing time and money into building this kind of open approach and resolving any intellectual property ownership issues that might result from using ideas contributed by outsiders. Legal issues can be potentially hairy, as seen by Netflix's decision to scratch a second innovation contest where outside researchers were invited to help the company tweak its algorithms after the first contest led to lawsuit over giving outsiders access to Netflix customer data. Companies must learn when to use internal resources and when to use external ones, the authors say.


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Jan 24, 2011 2:20 AM Patsy Rivera Patsy Rivera  says:

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