By RGLR Collective: Daniel Ruszkiewicz, Laura Galos, Maryanne Lee, and Beau Romero
“We need more innovation!” “I had an epiphany!” “We’re going to disrupt the fill-in-the-blank industry!” These phrases can seem all too familiar for those in design and technology fields and are the symptoms of innovation-culture dysfunction today. Alongside those common refrains lie leaders’ and workers’ legitimate frustration and skepticism of their organizations’ capacities to deliver something new and their inability to do something different from the way it’s always been done. What prevents desired innovative outcomes?
The underlying problem of innovation dysfunction is that organizations often intentionally or unintentionally misrepresent innovations as instant discoveries and “aha” moments. In these cases, newness seems like an event of chance, often occurring in silos within the top ranks, rather than a combination of intentional discovery, collaboration, inclusion, and follow-through.
Counter to the elusive “aha” moment, the increasingly complex problems facing businesses and our world today require a more predictable, sustainable approach to innovation. To be repeatable and sustainable, the approach must be explicitly conducted over time and collaborative, rather than seemingly instantaneous and individual. An innovation strategy is key. It adopts a multidisciplinary point of view and emphasizes actualization over time rather than the product or service idea itself, leading to effective, repeatable outcomes for internal and external stakeholders.
Why do “Aha” Moments Still Exist?
Instant epiphanies and “aha” moments feel comfortable in many ways. To the person who had the “aha” moment, it often feels like the product of logic and business acumen. Emotionally, “aha” moments feel instant and gratifying. They can feel rewarding because they typically rely on that individual’s worldview. While “aha” moments can occur anywhere in an organization, the ones accorded additional thought and resources are often top-down because of the importance given to those up the chain.
What is Innovation Strategy?
Innovation strategy is an intentional approach for evolving culture, organization structure, and behavioral habits with the purpose of creating mutually beneficial dynamics for customers, employees, and management. The intentional approach it requires looks at problems and opportunities not only from the perspective of an organization's highest levels of leadership, but also middle management, individual contributors, and front-line employees who are often closest to the customer. While research with customers and prospects is foundational at many organizations, a complete innovation strategy also involves employees and partners in discovery, co-creation of strategy, and implementation. Moreover, the creation and implementation of an innovation strategy requires a multidisciplinary point of view rather than a traditional one in which each discipline views strategic implications through its own individual lens. The impact of an innovation strategy is intentional cultural, organizational, and behavioral change over time rather than chaotic or mandated change.
This approach can feel uncomfortable at first because it accounts for many worldviews, invests time in proactive alignment, forces teams to confront their blind spots, and when ultimately successful in delivering innovative products, services, and processes, serves up recognition and rewards less individualistically throughout the organization. The main difference between the two approaches is that while “aha” moments are often ascribed to individuals, innovation strategy cannot be mistaken for anything but a collective effort.
A Collective Approach
This scenario may be familiar to many: a high-level stakeholder has an idea—say, for a website. A kickoff meeting is held, and each discipline wrangles out amongst themselves—often in silos—how to make a website happen. Perhaps metrics are discussed with an eye toward engagement or conversions. The missing link for meaningful behavior change in this scenario is orientation around outcomes, rather than a prescriptive solution.
An innovation strategy aims higher—what are the changes those tasks and metrics are driving? Is it really about another website existing in the world, or solely about making more money? Or is it about changing the interactions between employees and customers? Is it about catalyzing a different type of organization? These larger themes, which often take the form of problems or questions, emerge when the drive for change comes from a layered, intentional discovery effort, rather than when “fully-formed” ideas, which often take the form of product or service concepts, are passed along.
With alignment of the outcomes the organization is trying to drive, multiple disciplines can co-create a way forward and make a concerted plan for achieving those outcomes over time. Often even the minimum viable product looks and feels very different when approached together with an eye toward outcomes as the broader perspective allows for both divergence and convergence of ideas from multiple angles.
A common misunderstanding, even in companies that have made progress toward an innovation strategy, is that someone or some group takes responsibility for establishing a North Star vision while others forfeit control. This unproductive view of the world leads to silos, overlapping efforts, turf wars, and a belief that one particular discipline is more important than another. An innovation strategy is about when a particular discipline might take a leading role while others are supporting actors. An innovation strategy can be considered “activated” when everyone involved feels like the underlying change they’re trying to drive resonates with them, and they understand their part in helping the organization realize those outcomes.
Employees Complete the Strategy
New innovations often center on products, services, systems, and processes, but they should also keep the experience of employees front and center. While this may seem counterintuitive to the “customer first” theme many companies rally around, those concepts can easily coexist. Former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher extolled the value of prioritizing employees. In his words,
Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.
Product, service, and process innovation toward new outcomes must entail new sets of cultural norms, interactions and habits in order for desired changes to happen for organizations and their customers. Take the example again of the company wishing to create a new website. If the company employs an innovation strategy and their higher-level goal is to change the interactions between employees and customers, a ripple effect of adjustments needs to be made to achieve that outcome. Just implementing a website will not change employees’ behavior. Over time, as interactions change when the company introduces something new to customers, employees (especially front-line in this case) will face the cognitive dissonance of their job descriptions (and paychecks) saying one thing while their experiences with customers say quite another.
Organizations may be overwhelmed by the time and expense such an approach seems to take. However, the long-term view makes the benefits very clear: understanding how roles and employees need to change and upskill helps companies understand how to add value to their customers across their interactions. It also helps to provide more future-proofed, positive career paths for their employees as automation and other technological trends become a larger factor in organizational operations. Compellingly, creative companies find innovations hidden in the very “byproducts” of innovation strategy itself.
Zappos, for instance, is well known for their customer service-oriented culture. Focusing their employees on the value of making emotional connections with their customers has helped Zappos turn their approach to service into an educational platform called Zappos Insights, a School of WOW for Leaders. People outside the company gain access to their customer service environment and learn how to translate Zappos’ mindset into their own organizations.
The Worth of an Innovation Strategy
Creating and committing to an innovation strategy has many benefits. Not only is there a path toward and collective ownership of an outcome, but equally importantly added value to customers, positive transformation of career paths, and even incidental innovation that may be monetized or cost-optimized along the way.
Philosophically and in practice, most companies lie somewhere between the “aha” moment and a fully-formed innovation strategy. In tipping the scale towards an innovation strategy, teams and organizations must plan for the interdependencies that cultural, organizational, and behavioral change will affect, whether those changes derive from the customer, the employee, or management. Failing to do so leaves companies without a projected path that thoughtfully considers opportunities to pursue direction-changing customer learnings. It fails to make innovation a regular part of a company’s core business and can lead to ideas that do not live up to their promise. By considering innovation as a collective process over time, the activation of a future-state vision becomes an intentional plan or map that both employees and stakeholders can rally around while providing a blueprint for future consistent innovative delivery.
RGLR Collective is a strategic innovation consultancy.