As business leaders seek to implement new business models, build new products, or bring in new ways of working to their organizations, there is always an element of, to use Johnson’s phrase, triumph of hope over experience. The hope that ‘this time it would be different’ seems to get quashed quite often. The truth is that things indeed turn out to be different, but not in the ways you planned for.
Innovation essentially takes the following process. There’s an idea, proposal, need or an option. This somehow gains the mindshare to be sufficiently assertive to be transformed into a plan. This plan gets its backers and participants, and something good sometimes happens!
Now, while ideally this plan would be based on a careful assessment of environmental and internal factors, it would take into account contingencies and include a fair estimate of costs and time. In reality, that is at best an assumption. That too, mostly tacit. While having a great plan is not an end in itself, it is immensely valuable to be able to assess if there’s an undue optimism. The outcome of which can be not just a failed initiative but also consequent deepening of inertia, which can be the biggest innovation buster.
This fragility is, to a large extent, inherent to innovation. But there is a lot that experience can teach, particularly about what can be expected to change and what not. Here are some key red-herrings:
People: What would not change is that people will succumb to simple temptations. Excluding a small proportion of driven, strong-willed individuals, your team, your users and your customers would wander, lose attention and harbor doubts. This is more evident in longer, more complex initiatives. As planners underestimate time for sickness, vacation, meetings, and other “overhead” tasks, the sanctity of plans (and worse, goals) start to erode. Recently we finished implementation of a complex digital marketing and lead generation platform for a large technology company. It started with a lot of enthusiasm, but as various phases unraveled, and project complexities emerged, it became difficult to keep the team engaged especially as cross-function coordination meant multiple approval cycles and schedule adjustments.
Resources: There would always be constraints. This is not going to change. Whether for material resources or for capabilities, innovation leaders would run into limitations. Howsoever large is the pool to tap from, it is the nature of an innovation initiative, that there would be needs that cannot be easily met. Effective leaders know this, and use all their skills and charm to work through this. But, such paucity can have a disproportionate effect on the initiative and innovation culture, and hence, the team and the organization must be adequately sensitized. A start-up that I worked with more than a decade back saw debilitating talent flight as a funding round got delayed. In many ways, that company could not ever recover that set back, as other competitors got head start and access to ready talent.
Market: Whatever your target group is, whoever is your audience, it would change sooner than you think and in ways you may not have anticipated. A lot has been talked about ensuring that a business model is flexible enough to sense and accommodate these changes. It can, however, be very difficult to work with moving targets. Not managed well, it can lead to apparent lack of direction and apathy may set in. It also necessitates robust mechanisms to vet market cues and formulate right response. We all know of Coke reading the tea leaves wrong as it launched “New Coke”, and of Microsoft not getting on mobile wave sooner.
Business Environment: Public opinion, economy, regulations, geo-political factors, etc., are ever changing. On the other hand, given their deep influence on how any initiative is executed, planning can only assume a limited range of changes in various environmental factors. Areas such as privacy and confidentiality, national security, environmental regulation, etc., are hot beds of public activity and initiative leaders whose projects traverse through any of these have to be careful. Again, inventiveness and flexibility can be possible antidotes. Given the uncertainty that surrounds the new regulations for example, it may not be easy even coping or complying – but there can be opportunities to turn them into advantages. Regulations such as Dodd-Frank or Basel III have provided an impetus to overhaul IT systems and operating procedures, for example. Energy efficiency norms have accelerated innovation globally in related sectors.
Daniel Kahneman famously talked about the planning fallacy. The associated cost overruns and benefits shortfall can impair innovation. A dose of realism while being sensitive to probable (and improbable) changes is essential to sustain the culture of innovation.