Have you heard of corporate antibodies? Worse still – have you been a victim? They’re the ones that fight off and reject anything that’s too different or risky.
This is why it can be tempting to set up a separate innovation unit at arm’s length from the core business. It can help to liberate new ideas from the organisational treacle. The problem is that doing that doesn’t help achieve the cultural transformation that’s necessary for the core organisation to evolve and grow.
Excellent inter-functional collaboration is at the heart of successful innovation. When people from across the organisation work together on a gnarly problem or exciting opportunity then great things happen. Breaking out of functional silos and working together are crucial at all points in the innovation lifecycle – and in establishing an organisation where innovation thrives.
SHARED ORGANISATIONAL OBJECTIVES
It starts with a clear set of shared organisational objectives. And clear priorities.
I managed a project to transfer a unit (200 people, £20m annual spend) from one organisation to another. The project involved all operational functions across two locations, and we were given a tight deadline. Despite these challenges, the project was a clear priority for both organisations. Senior leaders were available when needed, the team were empowered to make decisions, budget and resources to work on the project weren’t a problem and it was clear to everyone involved how this project stacked up against other things on their to do list. There were many challenges involved and the project took a huge amount out of the whole team. But it was also one of the most rewarding things I have worked on – I felt enabled and empowered.
I have worked on other projects which have felt very different. Where there wasn’t complete agreement from senior leadership about why we were prioritising that particular project. It was a priority for one silo, but not for the whole.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask”. Attributed to Albert Einstein
The problem (organisational or user) that’s been surfaced is just the starting point – it’s often just a symptom of the real problem. You need to get to the root cause. There are many tools for doing this like ‘the 5 whys’ or a ‘fishbone analysis’.
Involve people from across the organisation in this exercise. Don’t constrain it to one or two teams (or worse, people) or you might miss the crucial nugget of insight – then you could end up wasting time and money on solving the wrong problem. Different people from different teams will see the problem in different ways – by bringing together this diversity of thought at the outset, you make sure that you have the right starting point and you also start to engage different functions in the project.
Ever heard someone grumbling “well I don’t know why they are all focusing on that – they should be working on X, which is the real problem”? Involve that person at the beginning – they can contribute their knowledge and also become invested in the project.
“Make people part of the change from the beginning—if they don’t create it, they’ll feel threatened by it. And, if they feel threatened, they’ll fight back.” Ideo
There are many tools for generating, building and prioritising ideas. What is crucial is that you have a diverse group of people involved in this exercise. Cast your net wide, come up with the seemingly crazy and tangential idea! By involving people from across the organisation who bring different perspectives, skills and life experiences you will come up with the biggest and best range of ideas. And then involve them in combining, building and stretching those ideas.
Be clear on ground rules at this stage. It’s a cliché but no idea is a bad idea – it might be the springboard to something better, an element of it might combine with some other ideas. This is the time for focusing on ideas and ‘what if’s, not on feasibility or viability – this will come more easily to some people so you will want to pick who you involve and have a good facilitator. Critique comes later.
FILTERING IDEAS AND MAPPING A PATH FORWARD
Your wall (real or virtual) is covered in hundreds of post-it notes – how do you decide which to test? It’s helpful to have a broad idea of the desirability, feasibility and viability of these ideas when you’re prioritising. By involving people with different functional expertise in the prioritisation decision you will get a more accurate estimate of these factors and the key assumptions that need testing – e.g. if something is probably feasible but complex to deliver, then you may prioritise testing potential price points that would make the idea viable.
A caveat – involving different perspectives at this stage is important but make sure that risk aversion and scepticism don’t close down ideas prematurely – this is where good facilitation is important.
TESTING AND DELIVERY
Many projects fail somewhere along the delivery journey, usually once the idea has reached a scale such that more and more operational functions need to be involved.
There are three main ways of mitigating this risk:
- Involve those operational functions throughout the project, from problem identification onwards – avoid the situation where they feel like they are seeing an idea for the first time in the scale up phase and have had no opportunity to be involved earlier on.
- Have clear shared organisational objectives and priorities. Without these shared goals it is hard for an innovation project to be everyone’s priority – and it will often get deprioritised against the many other initiatives and day-to-day operations vying for attention and investment.
- Develop operational processes that support innovation rather than expecting innovation projects to follow the same processes as the established operation.
OPERATIONAL PROCESSES THAT SUPPORT INNOVATION
“Corporations tend to stifle creativity when they manage innovation using the same processes they use to manage their core products.” Tendayi Viki.
One important project can make it through an organisation and be successful if the CEO is willing to override standard processes and overrule other people. But that’s not sustainable. To create a culture which encourages and nurtures innovation, you need a set of operational processes that apply to innovation projects.
These are best developed by a cross-functional team. For that team to be successful they will need to:
- Listen to each other to understand different perspectives and what is important to each function – and respect what they hear. What are the non-negotiables for each area? For example, because of regulatory requirements.
- Be willing to be challenged and open to looking for alternative approaches.
- Be solutions focused, looking for a solution that enables innovation (e.g. rapid testing of ideas or fluidity around budget allocation between projects) whilst respecting the non-negotiables.
AN ASSESSMENT OF YOUR ORGANISATION
What’s inter-functional collaboration like in your organisation?
- Do people talk about silos? Do you hear people blaming other functions for making it difficult to do their job?
- Is everyone in the organisation crystal clear on your current top priorities?
- To what extent are people from across the organisation involved in strategy development? Idea generation? Project delivery?
Are you getting the return you want from your innovation investment? If not then maybe your answers to these questions might give you some ideas about what you might be able to do differently.