Innovation: Been There, Done That…Now What?

Who in senior management would say that innovation is not important to their company? Indeed, after years of being constantly bombarded over the importance of innovation as a means of survival for companies, many have effectively taken the plunge and have undertaken innovation initiatives, either out of conviction or in following the latest fad. Many of those, unfortunately, have become disenchanted with the results after having “been there and done that”, having been left wondering how they failed and what they ought to do differently in future.

Consider that many companies have taken the trouble to invest sizeable amounts of time, effort and financial resources in providing their employees with creativeness training. Additionally, they have also worked hard to compile long lists of innovative ideas to be developed, both within and outside the company. Looking back, however, the end results have been, frankly speaking, discouraging, with only slight improvements in their product line-up in the best of cases. Predictably, the people who were involved in the innovation process become disappointed by having contributed ideas which never saw the light of day.

In other instances, companies have created innovation divisions to manage ideas, lend support to innovation processes in their different phases, do follow-up of indicators and act as an observatory for current trends. Once again, not only have outcomes not met expectations, but the bureaucratisation of innovation initiatives was daunting with endless unread reports on trends being churned out. And to make matters worse, innovation divisions would manage their own subsidies to justify their cost to the company, and when informing on innovation successes, these are, in reality, being achieved by the most dynamic and productive divisions of the company, those with the vision and ability in order to innovate.

We also see many companies setting up RD&i divisions with a strong technical profile, which in some cases are created solely because of public financial aid and tax-breaks. Sheltered from market pressures and free from the pressure of achieving results and meeting sales targets, these research divisions are ultimately unsuccessful in attaining innovations of any relevance for the company. They become, instead, isolated and disconnected from the rest of the company divisions, preferring to take a hands-on approach and manage innovation projects with much more dynamic teams of technicians, sales people, designers and managers and who develop the necessary collaborations on a case-by-case basis themselves.

So, now after years of failed innovation efforts, we are seeing many companies backtracking: they are either dropping programmes aimed at generating ideas, merging these RD&i divisions with other areas of the company, or closing them altogether. Nonetheless, three main conclusions can be drawn about having travelled down the innovation path and returned. The first lesson learned is that innovation is the sole responsibility of management which cannot be delegated to isolated units. Secondly, it is important to correctly choose a few objectives and then to commit to them fully. Finally, and most importantly, the fundamental keys to success are the agility and the right combination of a diversity of competencies and skill sets of all those involved in the process, inside and outside the company.

Written by Maria Astigarraga. 

*Originally published in the “Basque Innovation Guide” by Estrategia Empresarial, 7/12/2012