If you know the ROI of your idea before you start, are you really innovating?
Updated: Mar 23, 2022
I am not just an innovation and transformation consultant, I am a lover, a fighter and a bit of a rebel. I think differently about bringing innovation to life inside the organisations that I work with. It’s about more than buying, investing in or focusing on being disruptive, it is about taking your people on a journey of creation for the unknown solutions that will be critical for your future growth. When done right it will also become a core component of your employee value proposition and how you attract talent.
Innovation is one of the most misunderstood and overused terms in the corporate environment. Top-down directives drive the core objective to innovate as a way of filling a gap in their strategy, create efficiencies or improve a current process or offer to market. I believe this misses the point entirely and erodes any opportunity for your people to move into a process of open-ended creativity and conceive new ideas.
When my team and I work with our clients, we are very clear that if they understand the return on investment of an idea before they start, then it is not innovation. Why? If we know exactly how much it will cost and how long it will take it cannot be something new that hasn’t been done before. When this is the required process inside organisations it drives and rewards the wrong types of behaviours. It creates a process I call ‘Innovation Washing’ where outcomes are created to ensure budgets, KPIs and bonuses are achieved. Innovation is then a broad-brush term used to over anything new or different to organisation – this is a long and deep topic for another blog.
I get it this is tough. Getting approval for something that you don’t know how long it is going to take, how much it will cost and have no degree of certainty if it will actually work. Ouch, we all know how these conversations tend to go in the planning, budget and approval processes. It is the ability to tick all the boxes and provide answers that people can be held accountable to, that cause the softening of the creation of something completely new, resulting in organisations seeking to do a derivative or copy of another successful idea (or purchase of someone else’s solution) and call it innovation.
Moving forward on an idea without knowing the ROI requires discipline, patience and a huge leap of faith. This is about understanding the problem you want to solve or the future state you are aiming for, rather than trying to make an idea fit the world of your customers or your people. It’s about more than not knowing the ROI, timeframes and success metrics before you start. It’s crucial to understand the additional psychosocial challenges, change resistance and creation headwinds that your people will be moving through. There’s no way to sugar coat this - innovation is hard because your people will move through a variety of emotions and as leaders you need to guide, coach and support their journey through the process.
Push their limits but make it purposeful.
My team and I have recently finished an intensive innovation project with an engineering client, where we had the privilege to guide their team through the creation of a world first. I can’t talk about the details of the project yet, but when I can I’ll share all the amazing details and pictures.
Bringing this idea to life challenged the engineers, designers and leaders in ways they were unable to anticipate. This wasn’t a serendipitous moment where experiments led to an outcome. Quite the opposite - this was a structured process designed to move teams through a process to build the concept they designed to create this new solution. The problem being solved was well understood, but the conceptual solution designed
Creating something new that hasn’t been done before comes with very high highs and extremely low lows and this can be challenging for leaders and their teams. Leaders skills are repeatedly tested throughout this process, so if you don’t have the support of myself and my team here are the common areas you need to focus on to support the development of true innovation:
Provide the structure and process for your team to work within so they can get on with the job of bringing the conceptual vision to life. This is where you need to find the balance between planning and allowing your team to get on with the job of innovating. A core fundamental area to get right is ensuring everyone is clear on how decisions will be made. It should not be a free for all for the innovation team to make any and all decisions, rather there needs to be a clear framework for how decisions will be made, an understanding of the delegated authority the team has and where they need to seek guidance and/or approval.
Remember you can’t really plan for this, but what you can provide is a systematic process to assess the options, variations and ideas to ensure everything is considered, tested and documented. Be comfortable knowing that your role as a leader is to make sure your team know the non-negotiables and boundaries and then empowering them within this structure to test ideas and concepts to come up with new and innovative solutions.
Control The Narrative
Understanding and controlling the innovation narrative of your organisation will be critical to how you move through from idea to implementation. This is about more than the belief of your employees in the organisation’s ability to innovate, rather the focus needs to be on the levers of investing in the development of “never done before” ideas and intelligent risk-taking. The key here is to intensify these levers with the executive and leadership team to attain and maintain support from the top down.
Innovation leaders that aspire to achieve true innovation in their organisation work to control the narrative that they work to develop and deliver true innovation to support the long-term strategy and growth of the organisation. Managing this narrative is important to understanding the uncertainty and non-linear process of innovation inside the organisation. Knowing that this is not a quick win process or the ability to call anything new innovation will support your mission to focus on ideas for growth with diluting what you can focus on and seek budget for.
Push their limits, but make it purposeful
Innovation in its true definition is challenging and paradigm shifting. Getting there requires people to be shifted out of their comfort zones, and this can make people in and out of the team quite uncomfortable at times. When your people understand the vision, purpose and desired outcome for your innovation concept, it will be easier for them to come on the journey.
In some instances, you will be asking people to think about, experiment or create things that they didn’t think were possible. People inherently don’t like to fail, particularly at work, so expect to see resistance occurring in a number of different ways. My team and I work with leaders and teams to coach them through resistance so they can help their teams stay the course - even when it seems impossible. Like change, innovation happens at an individual level, and our role as leaders is to support individuals move through this process. The purpose in this instance was the customer and knowing that solving this problem will revolutionise this work going forward. Staying focused on this purpose we can push people outside of their comfort zone and bring out their inner genius.
Reporting: Take It Out Of The Black Box
As a leader of your innovation team create a regular reporting process and transparency so it doesn’t feel like this is being done in a black box. As leaders, innovators and professionals we will gain more respect, support and traction with effective communication that’s open, frank and seeks feedback for growth and success. This vulnerability and openness will create strength at the leadership table to understand the innovation project in development.
Don’t be too quick to abandon ship
This can be a challenge when something isn’t working, and we don’t have a clear understanding on how long it will take. There is a delicate balance between being blinded by a sunk cost bias and abandoning the project too soon, just before a breakthrough happens. It is important to make decisions based on the perceived future value not just on aiming to recover the costs already sunk into the project. It is not uncommon for projects to be downgraded or ended in budget cycles due to the degree of uncertainty and challenges in forecasting the future requirements. The genius starts when we move beyond all options that we know and understand.
With the engineering client that my team and I have been working with they got to the point where they couldn’t see any way forward. They had worked through all the variables, options and felt they had come to the end and couldn’t quite get all the elements required to really solve their original customer problem. The real work started when the team wanted to stop. It didn’t happen quickly but the solution occurred when one of the engineers had a brainwave that seemed a little crazy at the time but ended up working. This solution required a ‘virtual start again from the beginning’ and the team working through a different process to get to the outcome.
This was incredibly risky, but at this point there was nothing to lose. They had worked to the point of complete failure of every other option, so it made sense to try this. This wasn’t without further metaphorical tears, but it was the tenacity of the team to push through when they thought all hope was lost to find a solution.
To be fair, this wont always happen. But too often we see teams give up too early because they feel that they can’t justify the next try. In this case as this was required to solve a very specific problem it made sense to push through. If it wasn’t this team that developed this genius solution it would have been someone else.
Innovation in the corporate environment is already shackled with restrictions, limitations, and generally low appetite for risk. Organisations that aspire to really innovate will understand they will need to work with a high degree of uncertainty and will not be able to understand their ROI before they start. When this is done well it serves as a powerful motivator for your employees to bring you their truly innovative ideas.
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