In two of my previous posts (Innovation is an organizational Sport, How do startups and established companies play this sport?), I had explained that innovation is a risky organizational sport in which employees are hesitant to participate. This note answers the next obvious question – Who in the organization should involve employees in this sport and how? Let me start by refreshing ourselves about the role of a gardener, as I will draw several lessons from it.
Role of a gardener
What is the role of the gardener after he sows the seeds? Can he extract the saplings out from the seed or just wait for them to germinate? Can he accelerate the growth of plant beyond a point? No! He has no direct control on the seed and the growth of the plant. He has a lot of control on the external environment in which the seeds sprout and the plants grow. We measure the gardener’s performance (and pay him) for the sincerity of his efforts towards making conditions better for the plants. We believe that the use of right seeds by the owner/gardener and sincere efforts of the knowledgeable gardener would almost ascertain the chances of getting desired plants.
We all do not necessarily need a gardener. If the owner can find time to sow the seeds in his entire garden, maintain favorable conditions for plants and keeps himself aware about the new types of seeds and enablers (fertilizers etc), there is no need of a gardener. This is perhaps possible if owner earns his livelihood from the plants that he grows. If his livelihood does not depend on plants, it is very likely that gardener would be needed. Owner, who employs a gardener, impatiently looks forward to having blooming flowers (or fruits) in his garden. On the other hand, the gardener looks at environment and diligently removes the grass & weeds that grows around the plants. He checks for the pests and soil condition and accordingly uses fertilizers, pesticides and water. He controls the amount of exposure of the direct sun. He patiently waits but expects the flowers or the fruits from the plants. His level of expectations depends upon the sincerity of his efforts and care. (He assumes that if the seeds are good the results would be good except a few times when there is extreme weather conditions)
Innovation – challenges
The above is true for innovation – we need good quality ideas (they are like seeds but are difficult to manage due to culture) and need the right supporting systems for the ideas to get developed into innovations (flowering or fruit bearing plants). Innovation is never the main job of the owners (Board on behalf of shareholders) of companies. They expect their companies to perform quarter after quarter and this is what the CEO (identified by the Board) drives. If the senior leaders of the organization are too busy in the job of achieving monthly and quarterly results (source of livelihood) and are unable to give time to manage innovation (identifying right ideas and providing them with the right conditions to progress) the organization needs a Chief Innovation Officer (CInO or a gardener).
Corporate innovation efforts in large companies, in absence of CInO, often lack a clear plan and framework. In most companies, different groups, directly or indirectly, work on innovation and report innovation outcomes only if they are successful. As the focus is on quarterly and annual performance, there are no measures and no accountability for innovation. Managers sometimes compete with one another to get white space in the innovation canvas and work on short-term and less risky innovation projects. Innovation goals get dispersed in the objectives of several people and typically sits as the last item in the list.
Performance metrics of business units and functions are optimized for short-term goals. This drives line managers to get most from the current operations rather than thinking about doing different things or doing same things differently. They, rightly, focus on incremental improvements that have almost no uncertainty and help in achieving the goals of the current year. As a result, most line managers instinctively (not deliberate though) reject innovations that won’t contribute to their immediate goals.
Chief Gardener or Chief Innovation Officer/Evangelist
Chief Innovation Officer/Evangelist (CInO or CIE) will counterbalance the natural tendency to focus on the next quarter and ignore innovative ideas with long gestation period. He will be accountable for the overall innovation intensity responsible for creating a conducive culture and ecosystem for ideas to flourish and progress.
Having a CInO/CIE has another major advantage – Just as marketing budgets increase and shrink with the economic conditions and financial results, but never get dried up completely, innovation budget will never get completely slashed.
There is one difference between the gardener and CInO/CIE – Unlike the gardener who can perform almost all the jobs himself (simply because the plants do not have organisation structure), CInO/CIE would need to play an orchestra involving several people to get new ideas and ensure that they progress.
Role of CInO/CIE:
1) Planning for innovations
- Support businesses to spot & aggregate trends in their own, adjacent and related industries. Proactively facilitate identification of opportunities across businesses for the next 2-5 years
- Jointly own the innovation portfolio; Make detailed implementation plan and ensure that they are dovetailed with annual plans.
- Establish clear and significant (industry standard) contribution of innovation projects in long-term and medium-term strategic plan.
- Engage CFO and Board on Innovation.
- Incubate “homeless ideas” that are either too risky for the business units, or are outside the existing business boundaries, and hence might not otherwise get funded
2) Culture and ecosystem for innovation
- Ensure deployment of efforts (quality and quantity) to progress projects listed in innovation portfolio
- Integrate innovation performance and remuneration of employees
- Analyze (and compare) the Innovation performance of the company, business units, functions and facilitate improvements
- Ensure that (perceived) novelty degradation doesn’t creep in for completed innovations to avoid diminished returns.
- Facilitate Open Innovation – interface with the external entities: start-ups (for investment and for providing use cases), universities and create enabling internal business models.
- Inspire and enable employees for innovation and build the culture: Capability building initiatives, Rewards & recognition, mindset for Crowd-sourcing, Create friction-less processes for idea-generation to implementation.
- Facilitate IPR process in the organization
As the CInO/CIE will have most influence on the innovation outcomes of current and future years, he should be a high-level executive, willing to accept accountability for things that are not directly in his control. This role would need and inculcate a Discovery mindset (vis-à-vis Delivery mindset). The CInO/CIE should have a lean team and all his deliverables (other than the incubating homeless ideas) should be juxtaposed appropriately with the deliverables of respective operating managers.
Desirable behavioral traits
- Collaborative with managers, creative teams, research and development, and product development teams.
- Ability to thrive in ambiguity. Ability to develop new concepts to integrate seemingly unrelated processes.
- Strong business knowledge, understanding of a variety of business practices, and familiarity with the company’s industry.
- Interpersonal skills and the ability to persuasively sell management concepts and new ideas.
- Superior research and analytical skills to quickly extract insights from the reactions and manage rapid course correction.
- Willing to take risk of managing