Making innovation less scary

In my last post I talked about how the truly scary thing about innovation from an organizational perspective is at it can't be controlled by senior management in traditional ways. However, the inability to know whether is project is on track through Gantt charts or adherence to processes doesn't mean that it can't be controlled at all.

In the same way that people and teams working on breakthrough innovation projects must learn a new way of working, the role management plays must follow a similar path. Here are a few shifts in perspective that can help.

Instead of trying to control, focus management efforts on support. Teams working in the area of disruptive innovation are already treading into uncertainty. They need to know that they are supported as they go to where their research takes them. When I mention this, the first question is often about how to make sure that a team knows when to stop or change direction. This is a valid concern, and leads to my next points.

Understand the difference between uncertainty and ambiguity. Very simply put, uncertainty is the degree to which you know the difference between a right and a wrong answer; ambiguity exists when there is more than one right answer. When approaching a disruptive innovation project, the most important thing that the team needs to do is to figure out the difference between right and wrong answers. I often call this defining the criteria for the success of a proposed solution. At this stage it's also important to define the criteria in such a way that the ambiguity of the problem is maintained. We want there to be more than one possible solution at this point.

Look for gaps in logic, not faults in solutions. At senior management checkpoints in the project, the leadership should be questioning in such a way that logic breaches are revealed. This is helpful to the team, rather than challenging in unproductive ways.

Help the team to make their thought processes transparent. If the team is immersed in their research as deeply as they should be, they will be making intuitive leaps that will be very clear among the team members, but less apparent to an outsider. Leadership should help the team to recognize when this is happening, and pose questions to that end.

Recognize when good ideas should be peeled off and sent to development. Often the team comes across low hanging fruit in the form of solutions. Help them to transition these ideas to a development group so they can stay focused on the broader picture.

Timelines and schedules should be established based on what decisions need to be made at different points in time, and not based on the number and types of tasks or process steps that can be completed.

Don't be afraid to try something new. If after a leadership review you notice that the team is focusing too narrowly, then reassess what happened at the review. Most likely, the team felt that they were either being pushed toward a specific direction, or pushed to do something new that isn't supported by the work they've done.

Disruptive innovation is new for everyone involved within the company. You are part of the team, and your innovation results will reflect the extent to which that idea is respected.