Let’s Talk Innovation

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Director of Product Development, Sarah Lietz, gives an overview of MDC’s Innovation Skills Project:

The word “innovation” is a nice word—makes you feel good, like of course it’s something you should be doing. But people toss that word around like a baseball at a Little League tournament. What is innovation anyway?

Well, it’s certainly big business—there are innovation conferences, consultants, services, and books. There is Innovative Window Cleaning, Innovative Law Services (really curious about that one), and Innovative Diaper Service (changing the world…one diaper at a time). But simply using the word does not make anything inherently innovative. My definition? Quite simple: Innovation is something different that has impact.

OK, so now we know what innovation is. But how do you do it? And do it successfully?

Creating a culture of innovation within your organization is critical. Most leaders envision an organizational culture “ideal” that is optimistic, fluid, and responsive. But for most of us, that type of culture is not reality. In order to get results, people need to change—and change is hard! Leaders need to motivate and engage employees in the process—often times we move too fast, don’t communicate enough, and don’t get employees’ buy in along the way. It is important to:

  • Be clear about your vision.
  • Understand the impact to those who are affected.
  • Walk in their shoes—listen to fears and concerns and make people part of the story.

This culture of innovation needs to run throughout your entire organization. The days of depending on your understaffed, part-time Innovation Team for coming up with your ideas are over. Now, everyone needs to be held accountable for innovation. Consider a hybrid structure, where innovation resides both in the business units AND in a separate innovation center or lab. Lines of business focus on incremental innovation—think improvements on existing products, systems, and processes. And the Innovation Lab can focus on disruptive innovation—creating new markets and new products that disrupt existing ones. Different focus and skill sets, but everyone is involved in innovation.

Another key component to success is execution. Brainstorming, ideation, the fuzzy front end—that’s all fine and good. Absolutely valuable, necessary stuff. But if you really want to shine? Execute. The most underappreciated people on your team are successful project managers—when things go well, leaders say, “Well, they’re just doing their job.” When things don’t go well all fingers point to the project manager as the failure. Hire and celebrate solid project managers with business experience who can lead teams and have a proven record of successful implementation. “Success doesn’t necessarily come from breakthrough innovation but from flawless execution. A great strategy alone won’t win a game or a battle; the win comes from basic blocking and tackling.” (Naveen Jain) 

Successful innovation certainly isn’t solely about an awesome culture and solid execution. So many more elements are involved. Want to learn more? MDC is in the midst of a very exciting project to make innovation easier, digestible, and actionable. At our owner meeting in a couple weeks, you’ll hear about the results of our research and interviews with fascinating people who work in innovation every day in a variety of companies—Intel, Xerox, and ACT. Plus, you will be part of a live conversation with practitioners from iHeartMedia, Viacom/MTV, and Kinetic Worldwide. Contact Sarah Lietz for more information, or even better, just to share your own favorite innovation cartoons.