pdf_buttonWe got really excited this week when we were listening to a businesses program on the BBC World Service talking about olive producers in Greece deciding to process there own olives to olive oil instead of shipping the raw commodity to Italy or Spain. Finally, an innovation, not of the earth-shattering kind, but a pragmatic change to a low-value business model.

But why did Greece have to get in to its  current state to start thinking this way? Do we really need to wait until its too late before we can start turning things around? Greeks have been growing olives for centuries, after all.

Many Australian businesses seem to be stuck in a similar trap at present, with a very short-term and operational focus. In some ways it is understandable since the economy has been growing uninterrupted for 20 years, but the climate is changing and we need a change of approach in business.

Retail and hospitality are already feeling the pinch and other sectors are likely to follow unless we experience a second debt-fuelled housing boom. Wouldn’t a better way out be innovation driven – as per the Greek example – pragmatic changes to business models, processes, products and services?

We are continuously surprised how much low-hanging innovation fruit ripe for the picking is waiting unseen, but too few business cultures enable their employees to actively look for and exploit what is on offer, even by just looking inside the box!

What this comes back to for us is what we have alluded to in previous articles – the level of information overload and noise experienced by employees in too many, mainly large, organisations.

Innovation is not that difficult a process, it requires broad based experience, reflection and quiet time to make intuitive leaps. There is a very good reason why Google offered its employees 20% of their time to work on ‘personal’ projects; unless you have the time to do the thinking you won’t be able to innovate. Nobody will shout ‘Eureka!’ while replying to emails. It happens when the mind is not kept busy by having to respond to environmental distractions (like smart phones).

It’s not as if people don’t have the capability. Time and time again as we make the amount of noise conscious and act as facilitators to shut out the day-to-day minutia our clients re-engage their innovative thinking and get their ‘mojo’ back. One leadership team recently decided to call itself ‘Team MOJO – Motivation Our Joint Objective’ to remind themselves where they wanted their focus to be and their responsibilities to the people they lead.

Observing an executive team meeting at another client it became clear that an obvious product had been swirling around for over two years with a cursory ‘yes we need to look in to that when we have time’. When we asked why they hadn’t moved on such an obvious product offering (it was part of their overseas mix), a few directors said that they had looked at it but just got distracted due to immediate needs.

It was apparent the Marketing Director’s eyes lit up, but he didn’t say anything. We followed up with him after the meeting and he told us he wanted to drive the product, but felt he couldn’t because of internal politics. Through coaching him he found a way to placate the incumbent sponsor and get the CEO to agree to hand the project to him. It launched 6 months later!

So what can you do in your business to foster sustainable innovation? A ‘creative thinking’ workshop alone is not enough. Blue Sky thinking is great, but the ideas are usually too far removed from the current operations that they stand little chance of proceeding to successful implementation.

The first realisation has to be that your employees are usually the best source of ideas for innovation, especially when it comes to process and product innovation. Harnessing these ideas is much simpler today with a plethora of ‘crowd-sourced’ innovation tools available in the market.

This cannot be a process that is run in isolation or is ad hoc. Don’t get employees excited by canvassing them for improvement or innovation ideas, only then to not build in the time to follow-up. The process has to start with a commitment to follow-through. That commitment requires resources, which these days is usually about time.

Getting time from the right people is the rarest and most valuable commodity in business today. Recent productivity improvements in most sectors have come through reducing employment levels whilst keeping the workload the same; and letting meetings and email volumes spin out of control.

So ask yourself, when was the last time at work when you decided to switch off your computer and phone, sat back and closed your eyes for 20 minutes to contemplate a new product or an improvement to a process at work? Or simply thought about how to add value by to an exiting process by eliminating unnecessary work? We very rarely meet people these days who take the time out to think and reflect; and who feel that they have the right to do so.

On the back of this noise, time poor managers and lack of internal innovation a whole raft of consultants have prospered; even the big 4. But you can’t fully outsource innovation.

You can only successfully outsource the very first stage – Searching – where you look externally and internally for new business models, new product ideas etc. This can be a combination of creative thinking workshops, crowd-sourced ideas and specialist external consultants who build knowledge bases of industry trends and benchmark business models. This process can be run and guided by external consultants.

Already the second stage – Selecting- needs to be firmly embedded in your business for the implementation to have any chance of success. During this stage ideas needs to be assessed based on criteria relevant to the organisation and people within it; and buy-in needs to be generated at all levels. A suitable group of champions and sponsors needs to be identified who will carry the project through to completion.

In addition, for Selecting to be successful all ambiguity needs to be removed. The innovation ideas from the first stage tend to be vague either in scope or language.  During this stage scope needs to narrow and become well-defined and all language needs to become simple enough to remove ambiguity. For example, ‘introducing stage gates into the product development process’ lacks clarity. How many stage gates? At what point? What are the associated decision rights? Ambiguity prevents commitment which in turn prevents accountability.

For an innovation project to move from Selecting to Implementation all standard project controls and change management processes need to be in place. Because extra resources are rarely available, the trade-off has to be what to stop so that the innovation project can succeed. The standard answer to ‘What can be stopped?’ we get is always the same – ‘Nothing!’. If this answer is allowed to stand, failure is assured.

Based on these observations and as a result of having incorporated increasing levels of innovation consulting into our coaching work over the last 3 years, we have decided to formalise an offering for our clients. The differentiator is that we stick around for the Implementation stage and take on part of the project and change management work and also assist through ongoing coaching and consulting. We are more than happy to have ‘skin in the game’.