Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Real Innovation Is Getting Things Done

Recently I facilitated a planning meeting for an engineering company in need of fresh strategy after years of flat growth. But the ideas the group came up with in two planning sessions broke little new ground.

Later I led a workshop designed to teach emerging leaders how to promote innovation in their respective offices and departments. We employed several techniques known to expedite the creative process—stretch goal planning, associative thinking, brainstorming sessions, and cross-disciplinary collaboration. But again the group fell short of coming up with truly innovative solutions to our sample problems.

Perhaps these results point to my deficiencies as a facilitator. Or maybe it's unrealistic to expect real breakthroughs in a span of a few hours (as one participant observed, "It's hard to produce inspiration on demand"). Indeed, in my experience, real innovation is usually the product of a prolonged iterative process. Or sometimes it comes suddenly, unexpectedly, without any formal prompting.

Absent fresh ideas, both groups nevertheless came to an important conclusion: The actions they listed, while not really new, had not been accomplished. In many cases, they were common-sense steps that had been identified before, but remained unfinished or untried. "Maybe if we really did these things," one participant suggested, "that would be innovative enough."

I think he may be onto something.

Consultant David Maister wrote that "much of what individuals and firms do in the name of strategic planning is a complete waste of time and about as effective as making New Year's resolutions. The reasons are the same in both situations. Personally and professionally, we already know what we should do...but we don't do what's good for us, because the rewards (and pleasure) are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get there are immediate" (from Strategy and the Fat Smoker).

Every firm would like to come up with a unique marketplace strategy. But if you are unable to implement that strategy, what good is it? On the other hand, imagine the firm that merely accomplishes what we all know we should be doing—excelling at business development, delighting our clients, developing our people, improving our productivity. Would that firm not have a substantial competitive advantage, even minus any novel ideas?

Maister observed that he saw little meaningful differences in the strategic plans of competing professional service firms. Any leading insights or new services or pursuit of growing markets were quickly replicated by other firms. The best firms, however, excelled in putting their plans into motion. It was their follow-through, not their strategy, that truly set them apart.

Clearly innovation is a powerful force in business. Yet the companies we all admire and want to emulate have succeeded not just because they've had great ideas, but because they've been able to bring them to life. They are implementation masters. In fact, many top companies have prospered by building on others' innovations (e.g., Japanese companies that dominate U.S. market share with products developed from American inventions).

Perhaps the real innovation in the A/E industry is the ability to succeed at what most firms are unable to achieve. Doing what we all know we should be doing, but can't for whatever reason. How can your firm get over the hump? I've written on this topic before, but let me add a few additional insights (including from Maister):

Align short-term operational goals with long-term strategy. The two are often in conflict. For example, the push to meet business unit profit goals may discourage managers from investing money and nonbillable labor into new services or expansion plans. It's not that you can't do both, but you need to remove the obstacles to acting in the long-range interests of the company. One such obstacle may be a reward system that favors only short-term achievements.

Personalize corporate strategic goals. Strategy often exists as a disembodied vision of what would be good for the firm but not necessarily for the people involved in making it happen. That ignores a basic truth: People are more inclined to do what's in their own best interest. The most powerful form of strategy is that which achieves personal ambitions. It's not always possible to bring the two—corporate and personal goals—into alignment. But you should take what steps are available to make company success personally rewarding for those most responsible for it (by the way, don't overestimate the value of financial rewards).

Deal with leaders who won't lead. In my extensive work with strategy implementation over the years, there's one cause of failure that trumps all others—the unwillingness of some influential managers to support the strategy. The may resist loudly or quietly, but the result is the same: It usually undermines attempts to move forward. It's hard to convince staff to work hard towards achieving strategic goals when some key managers treat them as optional.

Maister put it this way: "Professional firms are afraid of this conclusion. They try to work around the skeptics, the nonbelievers, and the nonparticipants in their senior ranks, preferring to hold on to revenue volume rather than put together a senior team whose members are equally committed to reaching [strategic goals]. That's fine, but you can't call it strategy."

Nor can you call it innovative if you can't get the organization out of neutral. Strive for the best ideas you can come up with, but if you must, settle for ordinary goals pursued in extraordinary fashion.

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