Kill the Office of Innovation

The focus on innovation in the corporate world today has spawned a new organizational group: The Office of Innovation. With a charter of driving innovation into the heart of the organization, the logic is sound: If innovation is important, then there should be a core group of people who are accountable and responsible for it. After all, this is how other important functions, like finance and marketing, are handled. This makes sense.  

Or does it?

Should innovation be managed like other functions, or is it something that the organization needs to view differently? To answer this question, let's hear a typical story of what can happen when a company launches the Office of Innovation. Let's call this company the Inovato Corporation. The Inovato senior management team wanted innovation. They believed its future was not about replicating the past and that innovation would help the company thrive. So the team formed an Office of Innovation comprised of people it hand selected and for whom this "assignment" would be a recognition of their importance to the future of the firm. They gave those people a visible level of support: a budget and a dedicated space that was separate and quite different from the rest of the organization with bean bags, couches, crayons, whiteboards, and lots of color to stimulate the creative juices. Then the management team told them to go forth and innovate.

Priority number one in the group was finding the right innovation approach to use in the organization. (The people selected actually did not come from an innovation background so their learning curve was steep.) The group engaged outside firms to help articulate a viewpoint around innovation and teach specific methods. It also hired new employees who have experience innovating in other companies and who round out the group's skill sets.

With this promising foundation in place, the group formed project teams to work on innovation challenges. They huddled in their new space and, using their new innovation approaches, some great ideas emerged from inside the group. These got shared with senior management and reinforced the perception that the group was in fact innovating. And things continued along for a period of time. The group continued working together and even brought other people in the organization in to their innovation space to see the good work they were doing.

Then one day the tide began to change. People in the rest of the organization started to feel left out. Innovation was perceived as something that happened over there in the innovation group, and they were even envious and resentful of the attention and "perks" that the innovation group enjoyed. It became difficult for the innovation group to get traction as ideas they created got "stuck" inside the organization. Senior management became more impatient as real results (i.e. ideas deployed in the marketplace) were hard to come by. More time went by, interest waned, budgets were cut, and management attention got refocused on what was perceived as more "pressing" business issues. People in the innovation group began to get reassigned, and some even voluntarily moved on.

What's the ending of this story? Eventually the whole group got disbanded. The Office of Innovation died. Although it exercised some innovation muscle and engaged in seemingly healthy innovation practices, innovation didn't take hold. The organization continued with the same work practices and ways of interacting that previously existed.

A Model of Distribution
Let it rest in peace. Resuscitating this Office of Innovation without fundamentally changing it is to repeat this story. Why? Because it was killed by a flaw in its genetic makeup: Its cell structure was inherently difficult to penetrate, limiting its ability to draw strength from within the larger system and causing it to eventually atrophy and die.

So, how can we change the ending? We actually can't. We have to change the starting point instead.

To create a thriving innovation capacity within an organization requires engaging wide groups of people, their networks, relationships, and passions, and distributing the responsibility for innovation more broadly across the organization. Building this structure involves championing ideas and innovation in multiple organizational parts. It also involves creating awareness and experiences with approaches that operationalize how innovation happens on a day-to-day basis, and strategies for amplifying efforts (both in terms of reach in the organization and number of game changing initiatives in play). Here's how an organization can make this happen.

1. Create a Network
One starting point is to identify champions and catalysts of innovation across different parts and levels of the organization, as opposed to creating a singular Office of Innovation. Engage senior leaders, middle managers, and front-line employees whose mindsets and ways of working are supportive of creative collaboration and innovation. These are often the same people who are perceived as influential with their peers, who seem to naturally connect people and ideas across boundaries, both internal and external, and who are organizationally savvy. Aligning these resources around common innovation goals or causes (tied to, not separated from, an organization's strategic priorities) gives them purpose and allows them to tap into their networks and relationships in support of this purpose. In this way, the organization can build coalitions of innovators working on important business priorities, not a single group separated from the whole.

Getting innovation to happen will require these resources to adopt different roles at different points in the innovation journey. For example, senior managers with pressing business issues can be initiating sponsors of innovation, thereby jump starting the innovation process. They should also be change agents, removing day-to-day obstacles, and effecting organizational change at a systemic level. Middle managers are valuable resources for both generating new ideas and sustaining innovation by protecting ideas in the work environment until they have had a chance to take hold. Front-line employees are effective resources for generating new ideas, and they are essential in the experimentation with, and reshaping of, newly formed ideas until they can become viable solutions.

2. Make It Real
An organization also needs to create the path for operationalizing innovation in these groups and coalitions. This is more than simply deciding the toolkit that needs to be made available, but also includes giving people powerful experiences with new approaches that build acceptance and confidence to continue trying new tools and techniques and integrating their use in daily work practices. For example, one technique that is highly effective is to rapidly prototype ideas so that people can experience them when they are newly formed, reflect on those experiences, and contribute their own thinking to strengthen and grow these ideas. Another technique: Use the power of storytelling to engage people more emotionally in the communication of new ideas.

In addition, this effort needs to build an organizational consciousness around the mindsets and behaviors that enable a climate for innovation in groups. And more importantly, it requires supporting people in their attempts to practice and adopt new behaviors and ways of working together in these groups. This support needs to be visible over time and can come in the form of targeted training, deliberate facilitation of key meetings/work sessions, one-on-one mentoring and team coaching, as well as direct modeling of the new behaviors and mindsets. 

Finally, making innovation real is about showing results quickly. Interest in the innovation effort can die if it takes too long for an idea to be implemented. Again, rapid and iterative prototyping is an effective way to engage others and "learn fast."

3. Amplify Success
Helping people share their success stories across groups is important to keep attention, inspire others, and build additional momentum. More than show and tell, it should bring together people who can create demand for innovation and work practices and engage them in a dialogue to explore what worked, what didn't and how to adapt practices in their specific work contexts. Part of this translation process needs to include ongoing ways to link more experienced innovation champions and practitioners with others who may want to begin an innovation journey. Over time, this approach generates more energy around innovation and promotes increased collaboration across organizational silos as more people come together to exchange insights and experiences and to get support for change.

Encouraging people to solicit knowledge, insights, and experiences outside the boundaries of the organization is another way to amplify innovation efforts. This approach involves building innovation networks with people and entities beyond the reach of an organization's existing domains of thought, such as through new academic research relationships, new firms in different but analogous industries, as well as interactions with new types of individuals who can promote new ways of thinking. For example, creating an opportunity for a biological cell scientist (focused on vaccine development) to interact with a design architect (focused on building structure and safety) can be valuable. Both parties are addressing "structures" in their own contexts but with very different lenses. Making connections between the two professions could yield some powerful insights that can help the lab scientist to perceive his innovation challenge and ultimately the solution in a completely new way. Building these kinds of relationships into an organization's innovation network is therefore useful in both disrupting normal patterns of thinking and encouraging more speculative but potentially more powerful ideas.

The Creative Capacity of Everyone
A more distributed structure of this kind builds the connective tissue and pathways in the organization for innovation to take hold.  This connective tissue is not built through a single team of people or an organizational group but rather networks of innovators, dynamically connecting, based on changing business needs and priorities. And most importantly it is reinforced by a belief in the creative capacity of everyone that permeates the organization, making innovation the responsibility of all. In this way, innovation becomes a core value and encompasses the entire business system (processes, tools, spaces as well as products, business models, etc.).

So where does this leave the Office of Innovation? It must evolve to meet the innovation needs of organizations where they are today, building the connective tissue, shared behaviors, mindsets, and successes to enable innovation into the future. If it cannot do this, it will risk extinction. Just as the end of a species occurs when it cannot adapt to changing circumstances, the Office of Innovation will face the same fate if it doesn't repurpose itself and become the conduit for innovation fast.

Elisa O'Donnell is a contributing consultant to Continuum, specializing in organizational innovation.

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