In the previous two articles in this series, we talked about building a truly innovative organization by creating an ethos of innovation throughout the organization. Now, we will look at the mechanisms you need to take all that latent potential and put it into action.
Drive strategy that demands innovative action
The most tempting strategy for most leaders is to do more of what we’re already doing and do it better. It may seem like innovation would help us toward that goal. But it doesn’t, especially Visionary innovation. Innovation is inherently unpredictable, messy, and problematic. Innovation typically makes us worse at what we do.
This is not unlike taking the training wheels off of a child’s bike. It makes them slower, at least at first. It also makes them fall over and skin their knee. It requires a lot more from you as the parent. You have to run behind them, pick them up when they fall, put a Band-Aid on their knee, and encourage them every step of the way.
In other words, taking the training wheels off makes things worse. But you and I know you can go a lot faster and have more fun on a bike that only has two wheels. That short-term pain and messiness are just a part of the process.
The tension that a leadership team faces as it tries to institutionalize innovation is how much mess to accept. And there are three tools you can use to wrestle through this tension.
- The Alignment Pyramid. Specifically, goals, strategies, and tactics. These layers of the pyramid allow us to systematically review and reinforce the organization’s innovative activities that are needed for us to attain our mission, vision, and values.
- The 4D Process. Meetings abound in a mature organization, and if we’re not careful, that can become the untimely death of innovative ideas for two reasons. First, the meetings are filled with too many topics, leaving the more immature and uncertain ideas tabled in neverland. Second, they become analysis paralysis epicenters. The best way to overcome these hindrances is implementing a decision-making process like the 4D Process.
- The 3i Toolkit. When your execution processes are sloppy, unclear, or otherwise subpar, these first initiatives to suffer are the most innovative. If your people are overwhelmed by the whirlwind of daily work, they will give up on any new ideas. In Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull describes this tension as the Hungry Beast and the Ugly Babies. The 3i Toolkit is an execution framework that keeps the Hungry Beast fed while allowing the Ugly Babies to become Beautiful Swans. Ok, that’s enough mixed metaphors for one paragraph. The principle here is that when the pressure is too high, the ability to innovate declines.
The common thread to each of these tools is that they provide mechanisms for clarity, accountability, and action. All three of which are essential for a culture of innovation to thrive.
Put it all together in a process that fosters failure
99% of processes are designed to eliminate failures. And that creates a significant challenge when you are trying to build an innovative organization.
Typically, innovation happens outside of the process. This is why small organizations can out-innovate large organizations. They have one (or a few) innovator(s) who are relatively unencumbered by process or red tape. And so they innovate away, rapidly progressing through small failures until they find the right “recipe.”
This strategy is effective when it’s one or two people with a few people supporting them. But it doesn’t scale well at all.
This model gets exponentially messier and more unpredictable as we add more people and more money which gives way to some of the business (and nonprofit) world’s most spectacular crashes.
The lesson we learn from these crises is to offset the risk of innovation with the predictability and scalability of system and process. Specifically, we use systems and processes to stop screwing up.
As time goes by, we systematically root out failures and mistakes and become ever more efficient. However, if we’re not careful, we can toss the baby out with the bathwater. And that’s precisely how once visionary organizations lose their way.
So instead of building a process that ensures predictability, to build an innovative organization, we must design a process for identifying, investigating, improving, and then implementing new ideas. That is impossible to do without failing regularly.
In that sense, each failure is a sign of function and not dysfunction. Once we see it this way, we can build a process that allows for failure and learns from it, all while protecting the organization from experiencing some form of tragic collapse.
And you do that by taking each of the pieces discussed so far, deciding which are appropriate for your organization, and then implementing them throughout the entire organization.
In doing so, you will create a streamlined and flexible approach to shepherd innovative ideas to market. In other words, you will build a truly innovative organization.
If you’d like help building a more innovative culture, then I’d encourage you to find a Scale Architect near you using our Directory at scalearchitects.com/directory. These individuals specialize in helping organizations attain, sustain, and regain Predictable Success, and they are ready to help you do just that!
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