How to introduce a culture of innovation at your business
Everyone says they want innovation in their organization, but when an ambitious employee offers it to a CEO, for example, the idea is often shot down, says Neal Thornberry, Ph.D., faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
“Senior leaders often miss the value-creating potential of a new concept because they either don’t take the time to really listen and delve into it, or the innovating employee presents it in the wrong way,” says Thornberry, who recently published “Innovation Judo,” (www.NealThornberry.com), based on his years of experience teaching innovation at Babson College and advising an array of corporate clients, from the Ford Co. and IBM to Cisco Systems.
“Innovation should be presented as opportunities, not ideas. Opportunities have gravitas while ideas do not!”
Thornberry outlines a template for innovation that works:
Once the “why” is answered, leaders have the beginnings of a legitimate roadmap to innovation’s fruition. This is no small task and requires some soul searching.
“I once worked with an executive committee, and I got six different ideas for what ‘innovation’ meant,” he says. “One wanted new products, another focused on creative cost-cutting, and the president wanted a more innovative culture. The group needed to agree on their intent before anything else.”
This is where you designate who is responsible for what. It’s tough, because the average employee will not risk new responsibility and potential risk without incentive. Some companies create units specifically focused on innovation, while others try to change the company culture in order to foster innovation throughout. “Creating a culture takes too long,” Thornberry says. “Don’t wait for that.”
What do you know about the problem? IDEO may be the world’s premier organization for investigating innovative solutions. Suffice to say that the organization doesn’t skimp on collecting and analyzing data. At this point, data collection is crucial, whereas brainstorming often proves to be a waste of time if the participants come in with the same ideas, knowledge and opinions that they had last week with no new learning in their pockets.
The fourth step is also the most fun and, unfortunately, is the part many companies leap to. This is dangerous because you may uncover many exciting and good ideas, but if the right context and focus aren’t provided up front, and team members cannot get on the same page, then a company is wasting its time. That is why intent must be the first step for any company seeking to increase innovation. Innovation should be viewed as a set of tools or processes, and not a destination.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road on innovation. Whereas the previous step was creative, now logic and subtraction must be applied to focus on a result. Again, ideas are great, but they must be grounded in reality. An entrepreneurial attitude is required here, one that enables the winnowing of ideas, leaving only those with real value-creating potential.
“Innovation without the entrepreneurial mindset is fun but folly,” Thornberry notes.
Does anyone care about what you’ve come up with? Will excitement spread during this infection phase? Now is the time to find out. Pilot testing, experimentation and speaking directly with potential customers begin to give you an idea of how innovative and valuable an idea is. This phase is part selling, part research and part science. If people can’t feel, touch or experience your new idea in part or whole, they probably won’t get it. This is where the innovator has a chance to reshape their idea into an opportunity, mitigate risk, assess resistance and build allies for their endeavor.
While many talk about this final phase, they often fail to address the integration part. Implementation refers to tactics that are employed in order to put an idea into practice. This is actually a perilous phase because, in order for implementation to be successful, the idea must first be successfully integrated with other activities in the business and aligned with strategy. An innovation, despite its support from the top, can still fail if a department cannot work with it.
Neal Thornberry, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of IMSTRAT, LLC a consulting firm that specializes in helping private and public sector organizations develop innovation strategies. A respected thought leader in innovation, Thornberry is a highly sought-after international speaker and consultant. He also serves as the faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Center for Executive Education at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Thornberry, author of “InnovationJudo:Disarming Roadblocks & Blockheads on the Path to Creativity” (www.NealThornberry.com), holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and specializes in innovation, corporate entrepreneurship, leadership and organizational transformation.
How innovation is transforming government
According to Washington Technology’s Top 100 list, Leidos is the largest IT provider to the government. But as Lieutenant General William J. Bender explains, “that barely scratches the surface” of the company’s portfolio and drive for innovation.
Bender, who spent three and a half decades in the military, including a stint as the U.S. Air Force’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), has seen action in the field and in technology during that time, and it runs in the family. Bender’s son is an F-16 instructor pilot. So it stands to reason Bender Senior intends to ensure a thriving technological base for the U.S. Air Force. “What we’re really doing here is transforming the federal government from the industrial age into the information age and doing it hand-in-hand with industry,” he says.
The significant changes that have taken place in the wider technology world are precisely the capabilities Leidos is trying to pilot the U.S. Air Force through. It boils down to developing cyberspace as a new domain of battle, globally connected and constantly challenged by the threat of cybersecurity attacks.
“We recognize the importance of the U.S. Air Force’s missions,” says Bender, “and making sure they achieve those missions. We sit side-by-side with the air combat command, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance infrastructure across the Air Force. There are multiple large programs where the Air Force is partnering with Leidos to ensure their mission is successfully accomplished 24/7/365. In this company, we’re all in on making sure there’s no drop in capability.”
That partnership relies on a shared understanding of delivering successful national security outcomes, really understanding the mission at hand, and Leidos’ long-standing relationship of over 50 years with the federal government.
To look at where technology is going, Bender thinks it is important to look back at the last 10 to 15 years. “What we’ve seen is a complete shift in how technology gets developed,” he says. “It used to be that the government invested aggressively in research and development, and some of those technologies, once they were launched in a military context, would find their way into the commercial space. That has shifted almost a hundred percent now, where the bulk of the research and development dollars and the development of tech-explicit technologies takes place in the commercial sector.”
“There’s a long-standing desire to adopt commercial technology into defense applications, but it’s had a hard time crossing the ‘valley of death’ [government slang for commercial technologies and partnerships that fail to effectively transition into government missions]. Increasingly we’re able to do that. We need to look at open architectures and open systems for a true plug-and-play capability. Instead of buying it now and trying to guess what it’s going to be used for 12 years from now, it should be evolving iteratively.”