Saturday, July 17, 2010

Principles of Innovation

The fourth meeting of the WSAE Innovation Task Force was held on July 16, 2010. For those of you new to this conversation, I'm heading up an effort for my state society to define an evidence-based model of innovation for the association community. Inspired by the dedicated, defined and resourced “innovation function” that exists in many for-profit companies, we are examining a series of case studies that profile these processes. I'm also blogging about it here. By examining how innovation is successfully employed by the organizations profiled we hope to identify practical strategies for applying innovation in the association environment.

We've now examined enough case studies where we feel ready to start writing a "white paper" on innovation for the association community. This white paper will describe the traits—or principles—that we believe are necessary to create a culture of innovation within any organization. It will then describe several barriers to the adoption of these principles that appear common to associations. And, if all goes according to plan, it will also begin to explore some unique qualities of associations and other strategies that associations may leverage to overcome those barriers.

We started working on the paper in earnest at our July 16 meeting. Based on the discussion we had there, I wanted to share my draft of the "Principles of Innovation" section.

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Principles of Innovation

Among the case studies of successful innovation we studied, the following four principles appeared universal and necessary.

1. The culture of innovation was driven from the top of the organization

Like most organizational cultures, innovation began with the leadership of the organization. Several different leadership structures existed, but the organizations with innovative cultures invariably reflected a commitment to innovation among its most senior leadership, and organizations that wished to adopt an innovation culture had a leadership team that embraced, advocated for, and supported that change. Attempts to drive innovation from the middle or only one portion of the organization invariably failed, because any innovative action that fell outside the boundaries of the existing culture did not receive the leadership support or resources it needed to get off the ground. The lesson that these organizations learned was that a commitment must be made at the very top in order to create a culture of innovation, and that leadership must drive the cultural change necessary to support and re-organize the organization for that function.

2. Commitment of resources to the process of innovation

Like all successful business processes, innovation did not happen without the appropriate resources to support it. Employee schedules included time for engagement in the innovation process, money was allocated in the necessary budgets to allow the process to move forward and to capitalize on the ideas it generated, and management personnel were in place to oversee the process and make sure it ran effectively. Although the process mechanics varied across the different case studies we examined, some of the common attributes of the successful processes of innovation were:

A. Precise strategy. The problem to be addressed by the innovation process was clearly defined. Teams working on the problem knew what risks were acceptable and unacceptable, and how their success would be measured.

B. Eclectic teams. Who participated in the process was as important as the process itself. Team members were all creative thinkers that brought a variety of experiences and perspectives to the table.

C. Nimbleness. In the case studies, the objective of innovation was invariably to deliver better products or services to a constituency. In these competitive environments, the processes were designed to move quickly and be highly responsive to the needs of the communities being served.

D. Clear decision points. These successful innovation processes generated high numbers of creative ideas. The method for selecting which ideas would be pursued and which would not was always defined and clearly understood by all participants.

3. Understanding the mind of the community

All organizations serve a community in one form or another, and innovative organizations have developed mechanisms that provide a keen understanding of what’s on their community’s mind. In the most successful cases, it went beyond an awareness of the constituent’s needs. These innovation processes were imbued with a true sense of how the constituents thought—what they wanted, what they didn't want, and how they would react in predictable and unpredictable circumstances. The methods for attaining this understanding varied, but the knowledge, once attained, was used throughout the innovation process as a constant guide for successful decision-making.

4. Freedom to experiment and fail

The innovative organizations we studied all viewed failure as a natural and necessary part of the innovation process. Within the boundaries defined above, ideas were given the support they needed to succeed or fail, and when they failed, the focus was on learning from the experience rather than assigning blame. One company’s motto was “fail often to succeed sooner,” and they encouraged their employees to ask for forgiveness, not permission.

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I'm really interested in what the readers of The Hourglass Blog think about all of this. I'll keep posting additional sections of the draft paper as we write them, and I encourage all of you to share your thoughts and comments.


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