Innovation Planning – how long is a piece of string?

This is a question that children and parents often ask each other when playing and is of course a trick question. Why then do people ask the question ‘how long will my innovation project take’ when it too is a trick question? The reason it is a trick question is that rather like the piece of string we tend not to know where one (or both) ends are. To some Innovation Planning is a mystery, but this is still a question that I would like to answer, so that many of the SME owners can at least have an attempt at creating a budget for next year.

Here I am concerned with an innovation project run in isolation, not several running concurrently or an ongoing rolling programme. First of all let us identify the phases that the project must go through along with the number of people involved.

  • Startup
  • Audit
  • Setup and training
  • Research and idea generation
  • Testing and refining (including prototyping) if necessary
  • Implementation (possibly pre production if manufacturing)
  • Roll out

These seven phases can be further broken down or amalgamated as necessary. They outline a process for taking stock, gaining support and laying down rules before taking a hard look at your current starting point. You will need some training and development as you are about to enter into areas that you might not have been before. Have you often wondered why brainstorming works with and external facilitator but not with your own team?

The period of research and generating ideas is one that I term the ‘Ideas Lab’. It is a period of intense activity but one where the greatest number of results are observed. Finally we come to the tough bit, actually turing ideas into reality so that the boss can see he has not been wasting his money.

If you are in a mature (as opposed to startup) business then such a cycle is likely to take 12-14 weeks to get to the point where you are ready to launch a new product or service. This gives business owners an idea of how long resources need to be committed for. Now here comes the really big problem, how many resources?

As a rule of thumb you might need some full or part time external help but you will need some internal liaison or project management and a number of people that cover all of the functional area within your company (marketing, sales, production, stores, finance) and possibly at different levels. This could easily be 6-15 people in a medium sized company but could be only 2 or 3 in a much smaller business.

So now you know you might need 6-15 people for around 12-14 weeks and some equipment/office space. This will give a very rough ‘finger in the air’ estimate, enough for you to be able to answer the question ‘is this worth doing?’ In today’s economic climate you may very well be trying to decide the future of your business.

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Busting the business creativity myths

There are a number of business creativity myths that exist but below are six of the most important and most misleading.

Myth #1 Creativity Comes From Creative Types

The fact is, nearly all the research in this field shows that anyone with normal intelligence is capable of doing some creative work. Creativity depends on a number of things: experience, including knowledge and technical skills; talent; an ability to think in new ways; and the capacity to push through uncreative dry spells. Intrinsic motivation — people who are turned on by their work often work creatively — is especially critical.

Myth #2 Money Is a Creativity Motivator

Research shows that people put far more value on a work environment where creativity is supported, valued, and recognised. People want the opportunity to deeply engage in their work and make real progress. It is therefore critical for managers to match people to projects not only on the basis of their experience but also in terms of where their interests lie. People are most creative when they care about their work and they are being stretched.

Myth #3 Time Pressure Fuels Creativity

People are least creative when they are racing the clock. Actually, you may find that there are ‘after effects’ — when people are working under great pressure, their creativity is likely to go down not only on that day but the following day or two days also. Time pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period; people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.

Myth #4 Fear Forces Breakthroughs

A US research project coded 12,000 diary entries for the degree of fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, joy, and love that people were experiencing on a given day. They found that creativity is positively associated with joy and love and negatively associated with anger, fear, and anxiety. The entries showed that people are happiest when they come up with a creative idea, but they’re more likely to have a breakthrough if they were happy the day before. When people are excited about their work, there’s a better chance that they’ll make a cognitive association that incubates overnight and shows up as a creative idea the next day. One day’s happiness often predicts the next day’s creativity!

Myth #5 Competition Beats Collaboration

Creativity takes a hit when people in a work group compete instead of collaborate. The most creative teams are those that have the confidence to share and debate ideas. But when people compete for recognition, they stop sharing information. And that’s destructive because nobody in an organisation has all of the information required to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Myth #6 A Streamlined Organisation Is a Creative Organisation

Creativity suffers greatly during a downsizing or restructuring. But it’s often worse than many of us realise. A 6,000-person division of a global electronics company experienced a 25% downsizing, which lasted a painful 18 months. Every single one of the stimuli of creativity in the work environment was significantly reduced. Anticipation of the downsizing was worse than the downsizing itself — people’s fear of the unknown led them to basically disengage from the work. More troubling was the fact that five months after the downsizing, creativity was still significantly reduced.

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Taking the ‘In’ out of Innovation – should we?

There have been many articles recently that have focused on putting the ‘Lead’ back into Leadership or the ‘Man’ back into Management. But what about Innovation, I thought, what does it need that it doesn’t already have? One of my recent articles focused on Slow Innovation, going back to basics and making sure that everyone understands the concept, the parts that they play and the overall objectives. Have we done too much, do we need to take something away, perhaps take the ‘in’ out of Innovation?

This is, however, an internal issue for organisations. What is happening in the external environment that is helping or hindering Innovation? One possible problem is ‘spin’. Innovation as a word is incredibly fashionable and sexy. To coin a phrase, it is ‘in’. Unfortunately to take the ‘in’ out would take quite a bit of work, the best we can do is warn the participants in this fashion game.

Who is taking part and what is the problem here? First of all we have a message that ‘Innovation is good’ from governments, with grant funding for the wrong things, targeted at the wrong organisations, with advice from the wrong people! At a slightly lower level, Innovation is seen as a panacea for all ills. Wrong! If you hear this, an out of touch consultant is trying to sell you a ‘thinly disguised’ change program. Embedded within organisations are people jumping up and down shouting ‘eureka’ and wanting to set up innovation projects. Some may be well intentioned but they want to play with pet projects in their spare time.

This is making some very sweeping statements but next time someone in you organisation mentions innovation, think about what it is intended to do, and that everyone is speaking the same language. Ensure that Innovation is not just a fashion accessory, but an essential part of being a successful organisation.

Please feel free to browse more blog entries or take a look at the whole of my website for more information and ideas.

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