2019 marks the third year that I’ve been helping New Zealand businesses understand and improve their innovation. Over this time, I’ve presented and assisted to large listed companies, through to small rural start-ups.
It’s been a fun ride so far, and I’ve been consistently encouraged by the attitude and energy that Kiwis bring to leading change. We truly have unique opportunities as a small nation, and a unique perspective that we bring to business innovation.
At the same time, I’ve been privileged to respond to a range of questions and issues that are shared whenever I consult or present. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed similarities in the queries and situations that many New Zealand businesses find themselves facing in innovation - and the challenges that are limiting them from reaching their innovation potential.
Below are the most common ones I’ve encountered, and a few suggestions for moving beyond these.
Deciding to Adapt the Latest Fad.
One of the most common temptations in blogging is to write a half-baked article that explains why Facebook/Amazon/Google/Amazon are world-class innovators, and to suggest that adopting a few of their actions will transform your business.
This article might get clicks, but it won’t get results.
Business is unique. Business is complex. And although there is a lot to learn from world-leaders in innovation, the way to learn is not to mindlessly follow what the latest blog article says Steve Jobs did.
You may want to innovate like Apple - but are you in the same space as Apple? Do you have the same leadership model? Do you have the same audience and expectations? Do you have the same capital, and budget to play with? Are your employees similar to Apple? Is your competition similar to Apple? Do you play in the same business context as Apple?
I’m guessing the answer is no.
The truth is - behind the innovation of all world-leading companies is a depth of rigour, critical thinking and cultural alignment that goes far beyond most articles suggest. To adapt their practice without their background is like buying the latest running shoes and thinking you can now run a marathon.
I always encourage businesses to steal and borrow ideas from world-leaders, but to do so critically. Ask yourself - “What are the key lessons that we can take? What are the differences between us and them? What can we ignore? For this lesson to work - what else needs to be true?”
Building an Apple-like skunk-works project without the risk-appetite of Apple will lead to failure. Adopting Amazon’s three-step innovation process without having a well trained innovation council will lead to failure.
Adapt - but adapt mindfully.
Deciding Not to Plan for Innovation.
Most New Zealand businesses are surprised when I begin to talk about innovation planning. We have been raised on a steady diet of fortuitous innovation stories, which appeared instantaneously - rather than a sense of rigour and planning.
The result? A lot of businesses who have held idea generation sessions, or grabbed suggestions from customers - but have no plan as to what to do next.
This approach would not cut the mustard if we were talking about marketing, strategy, employment, or any other area of business. Why do we allow innovation to be unplanned for?
Unfortunately, this results in a lot of talk around innovation, but minimal action.
The Kiwi businesses who are leading their market’s innovation curve are not there by accident. They have plans for innovation, exploring their growth horizons. They know what to do when ideas are suggested. They plan budget for capturing and trialling ideas. They have a path for ideas to follow - allowing them to be tested and adapted as needed.
They recognise that good innovation takes time and money, so plan accordingly - while continually improving their plans for a greater return.
Most good plans start simple. The great ones stay simple. If you don’t currently have an innovation plan - this is the place to start.
Deciding Not to Measure Innovation.
One of my most oft-repeated phrases is “We manage what we measure.” I’m not the first to say this - but it’s a message we need to keep hearing.
If we regularly measure our weight, we’re more likely to control it. If we measure our running times, we’re likely to increase it. If we measure our goals, we’re more likely to achieve them.
With innovation - there are a wealth of simple innovation measures we can use to track our innovation inputs, our innovation processes, and our innovation outputs. Most businesses don’t have any way to track how their innovation is going - and whether they are improving or decreasing their abilities. Measurements help that.
Even simple measurements of time investment, projected ROI, projected innovation expenses, cost of avoiding an opportunity - each of these are simple measurements that anyone with a basic grasp of business accounting can easily adapt and measure.
But we don’t do it.
There are a host of resources and articles online to help businesses begin to measure their innovation inputs, capabilities and outputs. Start tracking them.
Deciding to Keep Tall Poppy Syndrome Alive and Well
I’m a fifth-generation New Zealander. I know the intricacies of Tall Poppy Syndrome well - because I see them in myself.
I don’t like standing out. I don’t like sharing my achievements. I’m quick to push others forward, and don’t naturally like leading for change.
But I recognise that if I don’t do it, it’s going to cost me. So, I do my best to feel the fear and the cultural pull - and then do it anyway.
Unfortunately, it’s normal to begin speaking at a business or conference, and see the reluctance for employees to get involved with a new opportunity. I can sense the desire to try, and the over-whelming fear of standing out. And so often, it leads to stagnation, and people at work not bringing their best selves.
There’s a bunch of New Zealanders leading a powerful movement to drag us out of this. Check our Robett Hollis’s Power Moves, or James Kemp to see ways you can turn against the Tall Poppy Syndrome that holds us back!
Deciding to Focus on a Pre-Existing Solution.
At one of my first engagements, I was helping a business understand a new opportunity that they had stumbled on. Unfortunately, one of the senior leaders in the room was adamant that he knew what the solution was.
Any opportunity to discuss possibilities was met with an eager and stubborn speech as to why their idea was the best idea. I quickly discovered that this person wasn’t interested in understanding other ideas, or exploring the problem closer. They had already made up their mind.
About 12 months later, the business launched a new product that flopped hard. Most of the product developed was given to employees to take home.
I wonder what would have happened if this leader had contributed their idea with openness? What might have happened if they had listened to feedback, tested their idea with customers and refined this with the knowledge and experience of the team?
Unfortunately, the more senior the leader, the more likely they are to suggest they know the solution. This leads to myopic innovation - a focus on one possibility, rather than a true exploration of the need, and an attitude of openness to discovery.
A strong innovation plan helps mitigate the chances of myopic innovation, as does senior leadership buying into the process from the beginning. A great approach acknowledges the value of pre-existing solutions, but does not assume that they are the best way forward.
Deciding to Focus on Innovation Without Getting Healthy.
Innovation is a human task. It involves creativity, effort, discussion and debate, discovery, testing and exploring, planning and strategy. It’s hard-work, but it’s also deeply rewarding.
However, innovation is not for everyone.
I have learnt that businesses with an unhealthy culture will not be strong innovators. If there is a culture of fear, bullying or treating people like cogs - they will not engage with new opportunities for growth.
Rather than adapting an innovation plan, these organisations need to look at their business culture. They need to focus on building up to a baseline of organisation health before they begin lifting the heavy-weight of innovation.
That is never a message that goes down well. But it’s the honest truth - for some businesses, trying to advance innovation without focusing on the more pressing concerns first, will be throwing money out the window.
Healthy businesses make healthy innovators. It’s simple, but it’s true.
A great HR consultant can help measure the health of your workplace, and suggest leading for change to increase your health.
These are the six most common decisions I’ve noticed Kiwi business making that hamper their innovation effort. What have I missed out?
Let me know your experience in the comments below - and we can learn together.