Much of the literature and thought-leadership around innovation paints a pretty picture about what it actually takes to create lasting change. It sounds glossy and nice, and always seems to end in success, but the real world experience is not always so positive.
Having worked in innovation for over a decade now, our friend and Global Head of Intellectual Strategy & Portfolio at Volvo Group Mike Hatrick has seen his fair share of attempts at corporate innovation going bust after a promising start.
“When a big corporation wants to reinvigorate their innovation process, they usually launch a big initiative, which generates a lot of enthusiasm and may have some great initial success before fading away a few years later,” said Hatrick.
“Questions then begin to pop up. ‘has this transformation failed?’, ‘what did we achieve?’, ‘Is this naturally how innovation works?’, ‘Should we look at this in a negative way or a positive way?’
Hatrick believes that the success or failure of an innovation program hinges not on how long it lasts, but what it contributes to the bigger and longer term picture.
“I had learned how innovation can be taught, enabled, and systemized while leading the innovation transformation program at Bombardier Aerospace,”
Originally a product designer and engineer, Hatrick made his first foray into the world of innovation when he and his team at Bombardier Aerospace entered a product they developed for an innovation award and received a runner-up certificate from Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh.
“We were on stage and the photographers’ flash bulbs were going off, and I was thinking ‘how the heck did this happen? I got thinking about what we had done that had caused innovation to happen, and trying to understand how we can repeat the process” reminisced Hatrick.
“That was the turning point for me, moving from being an engineer to an innovator,”
Fast forward a decade, and he’s now cycled through Bombardier Aerospace, Swisslog and Volvo, while also serving as an advisory board member for the Front End of Innovation EMEA.
Having experienced first-hand how corporate innovation programs can go boom and go bust, Hatrick is now currently working on a book with the working title “The Search for Innovation”.
In the book, he explores the innovation journey from the practitioner’s point of view — the day-to-day hurdles to overcome, what to do in the face of adversity, what works, and what doesn’t.
He explains how innovation is often a cyclical journey, which can peak over two to three years, and then drop off.
If an organization is to kickstart an innovation initiative and make the most of those two to three years, they must ensure these five key things are in place, according to Hatrick.
1. Starting Point
Where is the starting point?
When an organization decides they need more innovation, their first course of action is usually to start an innovation program. However, most of them tend to ignore the success factors surrounding it. It is quite often treated as an experiment — organizations start an innovation program, see how it goes, and cross their fingers hoping to create something positive out of it.
“It’s really strange because we don’t do anything else like that in big organizations. Everything else is usually well-planned. You wouldn’t start a Lean Transformation or Six Sigma introduction without a detailed programme and experts involved, so why would you for an innovation program?” said Hatrick.
Some key questions to ponder upon before launching your next innovation program:
- Where is it we want to get to?
- What does it look like when we’re finished?
- What are the results that we really want?
- Do we have the right team on it?
- Does our team have the right skills and pedigree to deliver?
2. Organizational Resistance
When you work on any transformation initiative, such as an innovation program, it’s exciting and there is a tendency to think that everyone else is as excited as you and wants it to succeed.
Most of the time, that isn’t the case at all, and there is a hidden resistance, or even a solid brick wall blocking it.
“To the C-suite and senior management, the idea of something constructive or different that could potentially derail the existing business model is really, really scary. Many people in that situation may just wish it would go away and they can carry on doing what they’ve been doing successfully until now, and continue doing it for as long as possible,”
“This is one reason big corporations are often very slow to react to market changes — it feels very risky to imagine switching your business to something very different. You already have the factories, the people, the skills, distribution, networks for your current business and those are hugely difficult to change,” Hatrick explained.
Some questions to think about:
- What kind of organizational resistance exists in our organization?
- How can we confront that resistance or work around it?
3. The Handshake
Or simply, how well does your innovation process gel with the rest of the organization?
Many thought leaders often believe that innovation is all about execution. But Hatrick believes that’s only part of the equation.
“Take a company like Volvo. They’re fantastic at executing and have been doing it forever, so why should an innovation program spend any time thinking about the execution side of bringing the product to market?”
“They should instead be thinking about creating fantastic things that could be delivered to the right parts of the organization who are great at executing. Define where that handshake point is,” remarked Hatrick.
Some questions to think about:
- What is the boundary between the front and back end of innovation in our organization?
- For what we plan to create, does the back end capability (product development, manufacturing, and distribution) already exist?
- What exactly is going to be delivered by the front end to the back end?
- How can we make that handshake work as reliably as possible?
Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and creating an innovation culture is crucial in any organization. However, if your window is only two to three years, expecting a large organization to change its internal culture completely in such a short time span is a bit unrealistic.
“During the two to three years, it pays to put total emphasis and focus on delivering some fantastic projects and transforming some key people so it becomes a lighthouse project. Demonstrate what can be achieved, who are the people who can do it again, and you will create a domino effect where project numbers grow as the years pass,”
Rather than trying to change a very large number of people, it is far more efficient to start off creating a special task force.
“If we look at companies that has truly transformed their culture — the ones like Whirlpool, P&G, 3M — they all took 10 years to achieve that. In order for that to be successful, they have to be really resilient, and have a CEO that is completely on board for the long-term. Most companies don’t have that luxury,” remarked Hatrick.
Questions to ponder:
- Who should join the innovation task force?
- How can this task force work in harmony with the existing company culture?
- How can we evolve the company culture to be more conducive to innovation, starting with this task force?
5. Role of the Innovation Manager
As a relatively new job title, the role of an innovation manager is not well-defined, and it often changes.
Innovation managers are often tasked to deliver an innovation process right from the beginning to the end, when what’s required can change quite dramatically in the different stages.
In the early stages, they’re researching, strategizing, evangelizing, and pioneering the initiative. As the process transitions into the middle stages, an innovation manager becomes the change agent, designing the organization. As each stage requires very different skills and modes of behavior, it is not necessarily the same person that drives it from the start to the finish line.
“That’s another thing that makes it so difficult — the choice of who should be the innovation manager is really important. Maybe during the process this person changes as well. This is something organizations need to think about if they want their transformation to be successful,” said Hatrick.
Questions to ponder:
- What should the role of the innovation manager be?
- Where will they come from?
- How does it feel to be one?
Follow Mike Hatrick on LinkedIn.
To receive more articles like this in your inbox once a month, sign up for our newsletter.