For Innovation to Stick, It's Got to Come From the Top

A conversation with Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink.
By Alice Bumgarner
Futurist Lisa Bodell believes anyone can innovate. Step one: Use the diagnostic tool on her firm's website to see how well you're doing in each of these four key capabilities: strategy, ideas, process, and climate.

Step two: Tap into a slew of tools and practices from futurethink, designed to prop up your innovation efforts. Before you know it, you'll have more than a single innovative project in the works. You'll know how to sustain innovation within your organization.

Innovation only becomes sustainable when people can do it on their own, without having to call in the consultants every time they hit a snag, Bodell says. They need more than a meal ticket; they need to know how to operate a rod and reel. "So," she says, "we teach them how to fish."

Alice Bumgarner (AB): What is the importance and the role of innovation in today's global economic environment?

Lisa BodellLisa Bodell: To me, innovation is more about incremental changes to get people comfortable with risk. What can you do to cut cost? What things should you stop doing so you can be more innovative? For us, that's the goal: To teach people techniques for doing that, so everyone can feel innovative, from the lawyers to the creative talent. What I get down on consultants about is, it's easy to talk about how innovative the iPod is. The reality, is I don't think many people can afford that level of risk.

AB: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing?

Lisa Bodell: Our background is as futurists, so one thing we do with companies is talk about plausible, possible and preferable futures. For example, we worked with Whirlpool to look at the future of kitchens – how might the kitchen be used beyond cooking? Whirlpool then used that session as a springboard for new ideas. Those are really exciting to us, because we get to connect very different dots.

AB: What helps you connect the dots?

Lisa Bodell: I have to meet at least one new person a week who is completely different from myself. If you don't see or meet anyone new, you can't come up with anything new. I've met with the Admiral of the Coast Guard, the head of the WHO, psychics, the head of a group of maids ... every perspective counts. It's the wild card that's going to be the next big thing. If it's already mainstream, forget it.

AB: What is the most difficult problem you and/or your team have solved? Were there any surprises along the way?

Lisa Bodell: You can't solve innovation with just online tools. You've still got to connect with people, get diverse perspectives, do research, involve people in the process. That's been a difficult thing for me to realize. We want to just give people the tools, but we've realized that we can't step out of the process. People who work in companies, they're dealing with "business as usual" every day. They can't find the time to make innovation a part of every day. That's why we've added training – for people who say, "I love all your tools, but I don't know where to start."

AB: When teams are working on a problem or developing a product, and they hit a barrier, what do you recommend?

Lisa Bodell: First, we say, tell us what your problem is. If they don't know how to define the problem, we can't get innovation going. And maybe what you think is happening isn't what your people think is happening.

AB: What are some of the obstacles that prevent teams from creating innovative products?

Lisa Bodell: The biggest barrier is leadership, period. They tell their people to go forth and be innovative, but they've told these same employees for years not to take a risk. They haven't defined what risks people are allowed to take. So we have a guide that talks about what's a smart vs. a stupid risk. A smart risk might be, I'll allow you to work on this project for three months, with this much money, and you have to have a plan to show it'll do this, this and this. It also has to be measured, in soft or hard measurements.

People can say innovation is from the ground up, but to sustain it, it has to come from the top. Otherwise, innovation efforts start with a bang and end in a whimper.

AB: How should outside consultants integrate and work with in-house teams?

Lisa Bodell: Know where you stand before you bring other people in. Then you'll have a roadmap to follow. If you're building your innovation efforts, you'll need to bring in different people than if you're developing it.

AB: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks (such as that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation? What has been your experience with this type of collaboration?

Lisa Bodell: We know of them and have directed our clients to some of them.

AB: What blogs or other media on the topic of innovation do you read? Are there any books on innovation that you recommend to others?

Lisa Bodell: I scan 57 different publications a month. When you're a futurist, you scan and connect the dots. I'm looking for signals and consistencies. I read things from a lot of blogs, websites, newspapers, magazines, and research reports – books, less. But I also connect in the real world, through listservs, associations, and think tanks. I read very offbeat things. For example, I was just reading Successful Farming, Harvard Business Review, and Packaging Digest.

AB: Any other thoughts you'd like to share about innovation?

Lisa Bodell: The future's here. You have to know where to look for it. You've got to know how to fish.

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It should also come pressure below!
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: [email protected]
Posted by Anumakonda Jagadeesh on November 7, 2012