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Disband the Innovation Lab

It’s a crisp Wednesday morning as I walk down the hallway of another client intent on reinventing their offering and approach to customer engagement. They say all of the right words, but do their organizational behaviors match the intent? Then, I see it, there in the distance. The glow coming from behind highly secured doors sitting in close proximity to the executive suite: the Innovation Lab. At that moment I know that I have a lot of work ahead of me.

WHAT IS INNOVATION What I notice to be a recurring theme across many organizations is that the term “innovation” is used to create a buzz in marketing campaigns. When I see this it takes me back to high school football. If a player spends all of his time talking about how good he is, he probably is not that good. If he were, we would all know it rendering the need to speak of the fact moot. The same rings true for innovation. If a company needs to tell you that they are innovative, it is likely they are not. (WARNING: I am an Elon fanboy. #SorryNotSorry.) Consider if you will, the portfolio of companies run by Elon Musk. Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, Neuralink, and SolarCity. The market considers each of these companies to be highly innovative, but you will never see any of them stake the claim. Nor do any of them have an innovation lab. These companies expect innovation from their teams on a daily basis. Innovation is not what they produce, it is who they are. Let’s explore what it means to be innovative.

LEAN STARTUP In it’s most simplified explanation, innovation is the practice is rapid prototyping and relentlessly reinventing ideas and hypotheses. Eric Ries brands these innovation cycles as the “Lean Startup Cycle” in his book “The Lean Startup.” Eric has created a niche in helping large organizations behave more like startups.

Though Eric’s work is admirable and has made a significant contribution to the development of profitable offerings at companies such as Intuit, my fear is that his work stops short of scaling innovation mindset to help companies survive in a 2018-and-beyond business environment. Innovation cycles cannot be confined to certain departments or product, they must be applied throughout the enterprise.

PERMISSION TO FAIL For companies to develop a culture of innovation the first thing that must change is a complete abandonment of cultural elements that make people afraid to fail. These include how we compensate, promote, and reward teammates. Most HR policy in 2018 is a product of manage-for-compliance philosophies of days gone by, which I explore HERE. Our people are afraid to fail and this aversion is the antithesis of innovation.

EVERYONE IS AN INNOVATOR (CLOSE THE LAB) The Innovation Lab. That really cool futuristically controlled area on campus where only the designated few (and guests of Executives) are able to access. This is where the good ideas come from. This is where good ideas happen. Is that really the message that we want to send? That only a designated few are permitted to innovate, and the rest of the company is expected to simply comply and deliver? If this perception is the reality within some of the most “..innovative companies in the world..”, then my prediction is that these “Innovation Powerhouses” are destined to go the confused direction of THIS defunct retailer. Innovation is the result of organizational behavior: the freedom to ask questions, the freedom to experiment, and the expectation of failure. INNOVATION IN ENTERPRISE To become an innovative enterprise, innovation cannot be the focus. For an organization to become innovative in its space, the organization must reinvent how it approaches teammates (note: TEAMMATES, not employees – words matter), how it manages people, how it interacts with customers, and how it defines success. Here are 5 tips to help you be more innovative today: (1) ASK MORE QUESTIONS When you interact with a colleague, are you fighting to have your point heard, or are you listening from a place of curiosity? For me, a successful meeting is one where I speak 30% of the time or less. Seek to learn and understand as much as possible. (2) SET A CLEAR VISION Does your team know what you expect of them? I don’t mean today, I mean strategically. What goal are they working toward? Which metrics are we hoping to impact? How do they know that their contributions are making a difference? Initiatives rooted in a clear vision deliver more, faster. (3) ESTABLISH GUARDRAILS You don’t know exactly what you want. I promise. No matter how much you think you do, you do not. Instead of giving your team precise instruction, establish guardrails for your vision, and let the uber-intelligent, well-paid people on your team figure out the details. Let them experiment, encourage failure, share the learnings broadly, and iterate forward. (4) CELEBRATE FAILURE Let me be clear about what I mean in terms of failure:

  1. ..failure can never be malicious

  2. ..failure can never be negligent

  3. ..failure should never cause injury of death

  4. ..failure should never land someone in jail

Inside of those guardrails, failure must be expected, accepted, and celebrated broadly. These failures are not failing, they are learning. Each learning opportunity helps us refine our hypothesis, pivot, and leap forward. (5) FOCUS ON THE CUSTOMER Sam Walton said it best: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” What does this mean in application? Make sure that you are investing in the right things, and accept the fact that this will change. Likely, it will change fast. Be resilient, be Agile, and pivot without mercy. If an organization is able to embrace these practices they will never again have to say “innovation”, because the market will do it for them. If you found this content useful, the greatest compliment you can give me is to share it with a friend or colleague.

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