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Driving an innovation culture – when elks are not enough?

“All improvement happens project by project and in no other way” – Joseph M Juran

There is something in that, if there were not, the quote would not be so famous! But it is not the complete story. We could juxtapose Juran’s quotation with one from Einstein:

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

Business Consultants might tell you that although you may think that innovation is a creative art: difficult to quantify, dependent on some nebulous quantity that comes from the ether, breakthrough innovation that allows a company to out-perform the competition is much more likely to happen when there is a rigorous process in place to bring ideas to fruition. So who is right?

In fact, Juran’s statement was meant as part of a larger discussion. He stated it this way: “if an organization wants to have leadership, they must create a habit of continuous break-throughs. To do that one must organise for those improvements, project by project.” This I am calling Juranian organisation.

It seems obvious that if an organisation makes several large break-throughs they will achieve leadership faster than if they make the same number of small breakthroughs. So how do we create what is necessary? As with most of these things, organisation will only get you so far, and the way you go about it depends upon the results you need to achieve.

Back in 1998 Mercedes were ready to launch the new A class city car. They gave some to European journalists to try. All was good until a Swedish journalist they had lent a test car put it through an “Elk test”. This is used for testing a car’s ability to avoid a hypothetical moose on the road. The premise is that in Sweden (where this test is required) it is possible for a moose to jump out into the road and become a dangerous obstacle. Unfortunately for Mercedes, this caused the car to roll. Mercedes postponed the launch and a new project was started to bring together the resources required to fix the issue. When the car was finally launched, it had wider tyres, lower suspension and Electronic Stability Programme fitted as standard. Fixing the issue took them six months and cost them £100 million, but although there was much innovation happening within the project, it was known technology and most people with the right technological skills could have probably guessed at the top-level solutions that would need to be implemented. Mercedes was able to get to a solution with logical people doing their best. Flair was helpful, but they could succeed by implementing Juranian organisational changes – start up a project, adequately resource it, wait for them to achieve the results needed.

Contrast that with initiating a project that requires real breakthroughs, with new science or a new way of looking at the problem. I’m assuming here that your business leaders have put all the right Juranian elements in place – without adequate resources the project is not going anywhere – AND they have read the right articles, engaged the guys from McKinsey, implemented their recommendations and set all the strategic targets that business leaders are paid vast sums to do. So, nothing left to do then? Well sort of:

As well as all that we have discussed above, for breakthrough projects that require something new, there are additional things that need to be inculcated in order to succeed.

It sounds obvious, but if you don’t empower employees to innovate, then all the other strategies that can lead to creative solutions will fail. It takes courage to go out on a limb and say something new, and if employees see that they can progress in their organisation without taking risks, then no risks will be taken! Instead, champion, promote and pay your innovators. If your employees see innovators are successful and well regarded in the company, they will take them as role models and be more likely to innovate themselves.

Allow your budding innovators time to learn against the time you want them to make great leaps of imagination within their area or product of expertise. Again, it sounds obvious, but if each time you get a problem you only allow people to get information to solve that immediate problem, they will only have isolated areas of knowledge. It’s like only having a load of street plans of various cities when you want to plan a countrywide tour, you can’t work out how to travel between cities until you have a map that puts their locations in context. To get breakthroughs that are really novel, you need people who understand the whole landscape – a scarcity mindset is not going to cut it here! The bonus is that the next time an issue surfaces, they will able to focus with much more understanding and you are likely to get a quicker solution. If they are really good, they may even be able to join the dots in such a way that they change whatever needs to be changed so you get fewer issues!

Hire some mavericks. Often it is the people who are way out to the edge of whatever personality scale you choose to use, that come up with the real left field stuff. These people tend not to be the guys who shine their shoes and cut their hair. Would you hire a a slightly scruffy man with wild hair if his name wasn’t Albert Einstein?

Get marketing and technical functions to talk. Often marketeers have no idea what is technically possible. Imagine a company in the 1920’s that makes buttons; their marketeers may start a project to make square buttons in a variety of colours, but did any button companies initiate a new project to invent the zip, or even Velcro? I don’t think so! If you get the marketeers and technical people (and the doers, not just the Director/Section Head) visiting each other every three months or so you may be pleasantly surprised at what comes to pass.

So, who is right, Einstein or Juran? As we hope we have demonstrated – It depends! The Juranian things need to be in place, but equally to get real breakthroughs you need to also foster a culture in which innovation and innovators are valued, are seen to be valued, and where ideas can cross between different functions.

Written by Stephen Bingham

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