This article has been written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification at CIMp. The CIMp program is part of iVia, the Way of Innovation(TM) founded by the University of Notre Dame, Beacon Health System, and Whirlpool Corporation. Learn more at innovationcertification.nd.edu
Market, Mission, Culture, Capabilities.... Every company is different. But at scale, it seems we share a universal struggle to innovate. In this story, I share an approach I am using to identify the unique barriers that are inhibiting innovation in our BigCos, while building the intrapreneurial skill sets of our most innovative thinkers.
By the way, I love the MIX moonshots. My hope is that throughout this story you'll see how we are amplifying our BigCo imagination about how innovation can be acheived. We are also aiming to enable a diverse community of passionate innovators to solve some of our most complex innovation challenges. Finally, by sharing our story along the way, we hope to encourage the possitive dissenters to take an active role in shaping our BigCo's future.
BigCos are notoriously bad at innovation. You can do a quick search and literally find hundreds of well-articulated publications explaining why this is the case. For the most part, the reasons are terribly complex and perfectly rational from a business perspective. Moreover, what's wrong with innovation at your BigCo and mine may be thematically similar but the specifics are undoubtedly unique, complicated and treacherous ground for passionate innovators. Likewise, the solutions you and I will require to address our innovation problems are thematically similar but tactically unique.
I work in a highly regulated industry with high barriers to entry and a profitable core business sustained by incremental innovations. Over time, operating efficiency and compliance have become our core competencies while the muscles for transformational innovation have starved. Acquisition and "fast follower" innovation strategies have shaped our new products portfolio with marginal success driven primarily by our ability to execute at scale. Today, increased external pressures and the rapid pace of change on all fronts are beginning to nullify this approach.
Our world is now changing at an exponential pace. Technology is making the impossible possible and changing consumer expectations in entertainment, health, mobility, energy, commerce, and home and workplace dynamics. Meanwhile, our political and economic environments are becoming less and less predictable and social instability is exacerbated by a diminishing middle class and a widening financial divide between the rest. For BigCos, the very nature of competition is changing as scrappy startups, eager to disrupt any industry, benefit from an abundance of investment capital while blind incumbents fight over the market share of soon to be expired goods and services.
Companies like mine and probably yours have missed the wakeup call. Most of us have already fallen behind, even if we don't know it. The ghosts of Kodak and Blockbuster haunt our strategic planning meetings like Marley arresting Scrooge in the night, but we just can't bring ourselves to acknowledge them. Change is not easy and corporate antibodies work restlessly to maintain a certain status quo. It's hard for innovators to make an impact when the issues are systemic and paradoxical. When the practices that keep you compliant and profitable today are likely to be your future demise, these are hard problems to define and tackle; even when they stare us right in the face.
In 2016, I completed the Certified Innovation Mentor program (CIMp) at the University of Notre Dame. Following my positive experience, six of my colleagues enrolled in the 2017 class. The program has equipped us to recognize systemic innovation challenges in complex organizations and provided us with an innovation methodology and tools for addressing these issues. Our challenge in implementing change is to supress our BigCo immune system and demonstrate the value of a disciplined approach to innovation.
Last month, the seven of us launched an effort to do just that and re-imagine how transformational innovation might work for our company. We started by enrolling high profile, respected, open minded, and active sponsors, which we found in both our CIO and our new VP of innovative product development. These sponsors are critical for providing "air cover" for our efforts and building a coalition of leaders who can effect real change when specific barriers to innovation are identified.
Our proposal, which the sponsors were enthused to accept, was that our CIMp trained employees run an innovation project from insight to implementation following the Unifying Innovation Methodology(TM), the innovation process we learned at the CIMp. Team members would be given 20% of their work time to dedicate to the project (another test, since everyone always talks about this concept but nobody has done it), would work autonomously, and would align with sponsors at the end of each phase of the method. Where possible, the team would leverage the enterprise's existing systems (people, processes and technology) to fulfill the tasks of the methodology, while challenging the status quo and identifying specific gaps and barriers along the way.
Our sponsors are fully engaged in this proposal, recognizing that the lessons learned from applying the method in a disciplined way and identifying internal obstacles to innovation is the real benefit of our actions. Our approach is essentially a series of experiments that will help us learn and answer questions like:
- What innovation tools and techniques work best within the constraints of our industry?
- Where should we challenge the constraints or conventions of our industry?
- What systemic barriers to innovation have we created for ourselves that we can begin to unravel?
- How might we organize and operate teams differently to accelerate innovation?
- Should we continue to send employees through training programs to develop innovation skills?
- How might we provide real on-the-job experiences to develop the intrapreneurial skills of our employees?
Our team is very excited to be given the license to take on real business challenges that can create value for our company while surfacing new insights to address the questions above. We recognize that while our project charter is framed around new product innovations, the real opportunity is to innovate at the level of the company's management systems and default operating models, challenging orthodoxies with real experiences and results.
There are several metrics we can use to evaluate our efforts, but two stand out for me as critical to success. The first is the amount of time it takes us to complete each stage of the method, noting specifically the time spent navigating and negotiating overly-restrictive company policies. My belief is that a disciplined and iterative innovation method will provide a much faster path to customer-validated succcess than our current perfectionist approach. The second metric is the total cost of our project comparred to traditional efforts. Our intent is to prove that innovation can be scrappy and lean, particularly in the earliest phases.
I hope you found this story inspirational in some way. We all have the choice to shape or be shaped. No matter where we sit in our current hierarchies, its every persons' responsibility to find appropriate means to challenge the status quo and to ask, "What's a better way?".
While it is still too early for me to report on any lessons learned, I am interested in your own experiences. Have you tried anything like this in your company? If so, I would love to hear about what you have learned on your own journey.