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Innovation and Process

November 15, 2012


“Until recently,” writes John Gardner, “I was the guy who preached innovation processes were the key to making big things happen in organizations.” [“Innovation 2.0,” John Gardner’s Innovator Inside, 23 October 2012] Gardner has obviously changed his mind on that subject and he explains why. He writes:

“Processes, I used to say, make innovation repeatable, predictable, and give those responsible for them a chance to be at the main table with other process centric disciplines like accounting, and operations, and yes, even pseudo-creative disciplines like marketing. After almost a decade of believing that, I’ve come to realize I was wrong. I have not been able to find any regular correlation between well adopted innovation processes and actual innovation outcomes, and I’ve been looking pretty hard.”

Gardner admits that his new views could be controversial (even admitting that others in his company disagree with him). Whether he’s correct or not, at least his ideas are thought provoking and he is willing to argue his point. He continues:

“Here is what I have observed though: For each successful innovation outcome that’s showed up, there has been either an innovation hero who drove everything or an innovation epic that got people excited enough to make change happen. You see, it’s not enough to have a repeatable process, because people aren’t excited by process. Innovation is something people are asked to do beyond their normal daily work, so it just isn’t reasonable to demand the above-and-beyond just because innovation is an important strategic imperative.”

I have argued for a long time that processes, culture, and environment can’t make dull people creative. On the other hand, processes, culture, and environment can aid creative people in their pursuit of innovations. For that reason, I believe that Gardner and I fundamentally agree. At least, I don’t believe that Gardner is arguing that organizations should abandon the processes, culture, or environments that foster innovation. He is arguing that you just can’t rely on them to provide a steady stream of blockbuster products. In the end, it is people that matter most. He continues:

“What is it that motivates us to do more than the minimum required in our jobs and lives? We care about a galvanizing vision that matters to us. Sometimes that’s an individual who inspires and motivates, and sometimes it’s a personally important storyline (an epic) which provides a narrative and justification for change. We aren’t, on the other hand, motivated to shove ideas into a system because that’s what our bosses want. We aren’t motivated to perform a whole bunch of process steps to get new things to move forward unless there’s some stick – like losing our jobs or getting reprimanded for failing to act – forcing us to do so. And we aren’t all that excited about making big strategic ideas happen if they don’t actually have very much effect on us once they’re done.”

Michael Bungay Stanier, Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, agrees with Gardner that real innovation begins with a catalytic vision. “Your innovation has got to have some sort of cool factor that lights you up,” he writes. Something that “makes you rub your hands and say: I’m up for this!” [“The four contradictions of sustainable innovation,” Box of Crayons blog, 22 October 2012] The most profound thing that Gardner points out, however, is that successful innovations are generally championed by innovation heroes who drive everything. There is both an upside and a downside to innovation champions. On the upside, as Gardner points out, they are dogged in their determination to see an idea through to execution. On the downside, innovation champions often have a difficult time pulling the plug on ideas they support even in the face of obvious failure. Stanier notes, “Part of the art of sustaining your innovation is a willingness to see a new opportunity and drop things to pursue it. Sometimes when you get to a peak, you discover it’s just a plateau that reveals a new path and a new peak.” And sometimes ideas are just bad and need to be abandoned. As Stanier puts it, you must “be able to ‘kill your babies’ [to help] you stay focused on the innovations that might have the best chance of making a difference.”


Gardner goes on to argue that innovation is more likely to take place when innovation champions work closely with others who are necessary to make it successful. He explains:

“Innovation heroes and innovation epics obey similar dynamics to those described by Chris Anderson when describing the ‘vanishing point of news’. In that theory, people are more interested in a subject in inverse proportion to its geographic, emotional, or social distance from us. I think it is the same with making innovation happen. We tend to care about an innovation hero who is our boss (or our co-worker) much more than one who’s our much-removed bosses-bosses boss. Or an epic about our personal work practices much more than one about the overall strategy of the company. In other words, if it personally affects us, we care about it. If it doesn’t, we might care a bit, but we are much less likely to take action to change things. This is why I am personally convinced the days where innovation management was all about processes and repeatability are over. Those methods don’t work, because once all is said and done, no one cares about them except those who set them up in the first place.”

Although I agree with Gardner that the chances of an idea’s success are increased when its champion is able to personally motivate those around him or her, there is some evidence that decentralized R&D processes can hinder innovation. For example, Procter & Gamble has been criticized for losing its innovative edge (see my post entitled Critics Pile On Criticism of P&G Innovation). Lauren Coleman-Lochner and Carol Hymowitz lay some of blame for P&G’s innovation stagnation at the feet of the predecessor of P&G’s current CEO, Bob McDonald. His predecessor, A.G. Lafley, was smart enough “to increase the rate of product development by collaborating with outside partners who could help with everything from packaging to product design,” but he “also decentralized R&D, making business-unit heads responsible for developing new items. R&D chief Brown says that inadvertently slowed innovation by more closely tying research spending to immediate profit concerns.” [“Losing Its Innovative Lead,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 6 September 2012] As I noted in my post, Lafley’s move to decentralize R&D sacrificed long-term innovation for short-term gains and resulted in a lost decade for P&G.


So how does one square this circle? Gardner indicates that at his company, Spigit, they are talking about a concept they call “Innovation 2.0.” He explains:

“Innovation 2.0 is all about creating social systems where you get to work on things which are personally important to you. As other observers have noted, we’re beginning to understand that in innovation systems, the very greatest things are built of many small pieces, and it is when you add these pieces together in some kind of concerted way  really important stuff happens. Little pieces, on the scale of individuals who care about stuff. The foundational science of Innovation 2.0 we’re building at Spigit is all about how to create emergence out of all these little pieces. You see, whilst small stuff on the scale of individuals is pretty unlikely to move the needle at the scale of a corporation, when you add everything together in a directionally appropriate way, it does matter, very much. The fact is, everyone is a hero, and everyone has an epic, and the trick is to line them up in such a way that important work gets done.”

I would argue that “adding pieces together in some kind of concerted way” is another way of saying that process matters. Despite his best effort to convince us that processes don’t matter, Gardner ends up confirming that they do — just not in the way he thought they would. The more important point, however, is that people matter more than process — and that, I believe, is the real message that Gardner is trying to make. He concludes his article by offering some principles for “innovation system design … that most people presently consider state of the art.” They are:

“1. Instead of focusing on innovation strategy, return on innovation, and all those other process centric metrics, they start from being relevant to hyperlocal heroes and hyperlocal epics. They are built to matter for individuals, not for corporations.

“2. Instead of trying to proscribe the stages and activities change has to go through before it can be adopted, they abandon formal process altogether. Instead, they encourage hyperlocality and hyperrelevance because it generates the raw material of emergence: chaos.

“3. Instead of focusing on outcomes, they are built predominantly as a means for fulfilling individual aspirations and dreams. Process is less important than creating systems in which emergence provides the system level benefit, whilst satisfying everyone involved on a deep personal level.”

I admit that I’m skeptical of some of the points raised in Gardner’s “principles” and doubt “that most people presently consider [them] state of the art.” For example, I certainly don’t agree that formal processes should be abandoned altogether and I know of no CEO who isn’t focused on outcomes. Although Gardner makes some valid points, I believe that organizations still need to focus on the traditional triad of people, processes, and technology — even when it comes to innovation. Stanier concludes, “You want to focus your forces, corral your energy and create boundaries and goals for your innovation.”

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