Quality Innovation Execution

IdeaConnection Interview with Braden Kelley, Author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire
By Vern Burkhardt
"While generating ideas is important, organizations that can turn those ideas into a mature product or service that the marketplace finds useful and valuable will be successful." Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire, page 78

Vern Burkhardt (VB): In Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire you say, "Innovation is not a project." Should implementing a culture of continuous innovation be considered as a project?

photo of Braden KelleyBraden Kelley: The short answer is no. When you talk about considering something as a project, this means that it has a beginning, an end, and a timeline. In this context, implementing a culture of continuous innovation cannot by definition be considered as a project because it must be implemented without an end – otherwise your innovation will not be continuous.

If you want to create a culture that supports continuous innovation, you need to communicate that the effort is not a project, but a new way of doing things. To support this you should use language like, "To change our culture to support continuous innovation, we intend to begin doing the following…"

Many of the keys to successful culture change are inextricably linked to communication, and this begins with tasks as elementary as creating a shared definition of innovation for your organization, and a common language around innovation. These kinds of foundational communication exercises will serve you well in getting your culture change effort successfully under way.

VB: "…the companies that successfully innovate in a repeatable fashion and stay at the top of their industries have one thing in common – they are good at managing change." Is fear the greatest inhibitor to change and therefore to a culture that welcomes innovation?

Braden Kelley: I'm not sure I would say that fear is the ‘greatest' inhibitor to change, but it is definitely a common barrier to change and to creating a culture that welcomes innovation. The greatest inhibitors to change are enlightened self-interest and an inability to understand or accurately estimate both the benefits of the end state of the change and the effort necessary to make the change.

Fear and the lack of understanding can be combated in part by frequent and clear communications. Overcoming enlightened self-interest is much more difficult because you are trying to make a change which may not benefit the group of people who you most need to help effect the change. This problem is not solved with communications, but often is solved with structural and management changes to re-align incentives, resources, and expected outcomes.

VB: Does fear of change among a company's customers or suppliers also inhibit innovation?

Braden Kelley: Innovation ultimately cannot happen without the support and involvement of the entire ecosystem.

Fear of change among your customers or suppliers can derail your innovation efforts. That's why it is so incredibly important to communicate early and often to uncover resistance and objections upfront so that you can begin isolating and overcoming them.

I also like to say that innovation is composed of value creation, friction reduction, and value translation. Although the value translation piece shows up at the end of the list, it is important to begin early attacking how you are going to describe the new value you're creating in your communications, and to prototype and test your innovation with your suppliers, partners, and employees before you begin communicating with customers about the new value that it will create. This will allow you to identify where you will face difficulty in translating the value for your customers, and may even lead to increased value creation during the development process.

VB: "Setting the innovation vision is the role of senior leadership, and many would say that the CEO should also be the Chief Innovation Officer." In your experience, do many CEO's see themselves as performing this role for their companies?

Braden Kelley: The reason many people say the CEO should be the Chief Innovation Officer is because any formal commitment to innovation requires leadership and organizational alignment. In reality, CEOs can't do it all. They either need to offload some of their operational responsibilities to take on a more visible and active role in innovation – think Steve Jobs – or, instead, give visible support and outsource some of their innovation responsibilities to a Chief Innovation Officer who they choose to hire – think Jeff Immelt. Neither way is wrong.

The key point is that in any organization all of the roles and responsibilities need to be filled. For any organization that wants to achieve innovation excellence, it is important that someone is looking after all of the required elements.

VB: What advice do you have for leaders of organizations who would like their innovation strategy to be more than nice words on paper?

Braden Kelley: To create an innovation strategy which people are committed to and that can actually be executed, you can't jump directly to creating one. You must first start by defining what innovation means for your organization in your unique context. Then you must create a common language around innovation and disseminate it across the organization. After co-creating these foundational elements with a cross-section of your organization, you can create an innovation vision for your organization.

Help people imagine what innovation looks like and where you want to focus your innovation efforts. Once that is clear in everyone's minds, you are ready to build an innovation strategy. Not before.

VB: "One organization (and especially its customers) can only absorb and adopt so much innovation at one time." Would you talk about this?

Braden Kelley: It is human nature to want the benefits now, without doing the work that it takes to get there.

When talking about building a culture of innovation, you need to resign yourself to an effort that will take years to just get started. I've talked with innovation leaders in numerous companies in widely different industries, and one of the common threads is that even in companies that have been trying to create a culture of continuous innovation for five or more years their leaders still feel like they are just getting started. The reason is that culture change is hard – whether associated with innovation or not – and people can only absorb so much change at one time.

Innovation is all about change. This is why it's important to try and not overwhelm people with the changes associated with innovation all at once, but to build up to it one foundational element at a time.

Even smart brand transformations are approached in stages over an extended period. There is also a similar psychology that surrounds the adoption of innovations in the marketplace. People have to first understand what it is, and then they have to understand what it does. This is necessary before they can finally understand how the innovation might fit into their lives and why they might want to go through the efforts to displace another solution to make room for this innovation.

I hope this helps.

VB: "Insights and execution are the most important ingredients for creating innovation." Are customer insights different than ideas?

cover of Stoking your innovation bonfireBraden Kelley: Customer insights are absolutely different than ideas. Ideas are proposed solutions to a customer problem. Customer insights aim to get to the heart of a certain customer problem or job to be done.

For innovation to be created, you must first identify a unique, differentiated customer insight. Unless you do your ideation will end up being like the ideation of every other competitor in your industry, and all will end up bringing similar product or service evolutions or creations to the marketplace.

The better you become at identifying and framing problem definitions, the better you'll get at bringing innovative solutions to the marketplace.

VB: What do you mean by the term "quality execution?"

Braden Kelley: Quality execution is ultimately about realizing the vision and flawlessly translating the intended value all the way from mind to market. When it comes to defining quality execution, there are a couple of things I'd like to focus on.

The first refers back to the three components of innovation that I mentioned earlier – value creation, friction reduction, and value translation. You can have the best idea in the world but you will not create an innovation if you fail to link it to a meaningful insight or fail to translate the value you've created for the customer in the design, communications, or execution.

Second, too few companies design the customer experience all the way from the beginning of how they make people feel when they are speaking with them to uncover unique and differentiated insights, to the end of the process where buying, transporting, unpacking, use, and possibly even service take place. You can't have quality execution without designing the customer experience from end to end. And as a side benefit, when you do this design work you often uncover opportunities to reduce friction and increase the value of your innovation efforts.

VB: Is it predictable that the high energy for innovation among employees will wane over time even in organizations that have robust innovation policies and processes?

Braden Kelley: It is a myth that innovation efforts begin with high energy and wane over time. The reason why we have this myth is that people misinterpret a key artifact as a representation of reality. The artifact in question is that typically when organizations begin a formal innovation effort and start soliciting ideas from their employees or even their suppliers, partners or customers, they get a huge spike at the beginning and then the volume of submitted ideas tapers off over time.

The reality is that when you begin a formal innovation effort and solicit ideas, there is a backlog of ideas waiting for an outlet to input them into. I wrote an article titled the "Little Black Book of Innovation" that describes the mechanics of this artifact in detail.

In countering this myth I would like to offer an alternative suggestion, a potentially controversial one. Innovation efforts do not naturally start with high energy and wane over time as if ideas = energy. In fact, organizations with robust innovation efforts and really great communications and follow-through around their efforts will experience quite the opposite. People are naturally skeptical and, while the backlog of ideas may trick you into believing that innovation energy begins high and naturally falls, innovation energy most often begins low, but noisy. With proven follow-through and consistent commitment organizations can raise the innovation energy in their organization over time.

Walking the walk and earning people's trust is how you make continuous innovation possible. It makes obtaining innovation excellence a worthy and achievable goal.

VB: "Nothing prevents organizations from reaching their full innovation potential more than barriers posed by the structure of the organization itself." Are these barriers a natural consequence of increase in the size of an organization and success in the marketplace?

Braden Kelley: As organizations grow and become more successful, the boundaries between different functional areas and eventually different business units become more rigid. It is the role of the CEO and the senior leadership team to recognize this, to put the programs in place, and to create the organizational agility necessary to battle against these rigidities. This is the case even if it raises the cost of running the organization. After all, without sustained innovation an organization will eventually be surpassed in the market either by existing competitors who make themselves more agile, or by new entrants who have no choice but to be more flexible than the incumbents.

VB: "Imagine how much more profitable entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs would be if they could find a way to pursue only truly valuable ideas." What advice do you have for determining whether something being developed is truly valuable or merely useful?

Braden Kelley: One of the best ways to determine whether something being developed is truly valuable is to try and sell it to people before it is even completed. This could mean putting something on site with a valued and trusted customer for them to use and, after a couple of months, trying to take it back or trying to sell it to them. If you've truly created something that is valuable and not just useful, they won't want to give it back after using it and they may even try to steal it.

When you've created something that delivers so much value that people are willing to put up with its warts in the development stage and use it in place of a commercially shipped product, then you've created true value.

But don't forget communications. Even at this very early stage, good communications can help you bridge the gap between usefulness and value. This is because value ultimately has to be unlocked by the customer. Great communications and design can help customers unlock the value.

Oh, before we move on, one other way to test whether something is useful or valuable is to throw it up on your website with a good product description, photo, and a "Buy Now" button, and see how many people click the button. Do they want to buy it?

VB: What have you found are the most common failings of organizations in ensuring innovation happens in a profitable and sustainable manner?

Braden Kelley: Organizations often fail to create profitable and sustainable innovation because they fail to commit. They try to innovate without dedicating and committing resources to innovation.

To make innovation sustainable you must set aside funding for innovation projects separate from your normal product or service development budgets. Sustainable innovation requires resource flexibility, both human and capital resources. This includes making sure people not only have time to innovate, but also that the right people work on all of your innovation projects to move them from mind to market.

"Have You Had an Innovation Lobotomy?" is the title of one of the chapters in Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire. It's a good question to ask ourselves.

Braden Kelley's bio:
Author Braden Kelley earned a BSc (Finance and Management) from the University of Oregon in 1993, and a MBA from the London Business School in 2004.

He was an Internal Consultant at Symantec from 1994 to 1998, Senior Consultant at NEC Solutions during 1998 to 1999, Senior Consultant at Computer Associates 1999 to 2002, Strategy Associate (Laboratory Diagnostics) at Roche Diagnostics during 2003, and in 2003 he became the founder of Business Strategy Innovation and has been an "Innovation Evangelist" ever since.

Braden Kelley is a thought leader on the topic of continuous innovation and works with clients to create innovative strategies, effective customer marketing, organizational change, and improved organizational performance. He has published more than 400 articles for online publications such as CustomerThink and American Express OPEN Forum.

Braden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire: A Roadmap to a Sustainable Culture of Ingenuity and Purpose (2010).

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