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Innovation: Myth, Play or A Must

A new version of innovation

2Jun

Innovation: myth, game... or necessity?

I am eating with a friend of mine and Control Management Director of a big Spanish industrial company. As she sits in front of me, she starts complaining: Eva, I find great my company willingness to encourage us to develop ideas that after all will go to a data base… but I actually don’t know what will happen after that… And what is more, I don’t have time to implement them! I am too busy! There is absolutely no point in doing that!

Coffee break while on an innovation event; I am chatting with the executive of a big Spanish company. He proudly relates me the big volumes of generated ideas they have achieved, as well as the percentage of ideas converted into prototypes or projects. Ingenuously. I am wondering about the impact that has on the business, when he recognize with no blush that they do not measure it.

I am having breakfast with an old consultancy colleague. While we are enthusiastically talking, he admits to me the following: we are not able to apply innovation in our customer tech projects. The project leaders acknowledge that they have received all sorts of training and messages, but they do not know where to start.

It is late at night; the kids let me my beloved lonely time before going to bed that I normally use to check the big volumes of information that the Net sends us continuously: I open McKinsey… and I see innovation, BCG… innovation, economic press… innovation, Twitter… Innovation, LinkedIn… Innovation. What is happening! For a moment, I think a malicious virus has infected my Mac and I close it swiftly, as if doing that could save me!

I open it again; it was not a virus. It is the trending topic in the current business management world. However, my personal and colleagues' experience in the direction boards of different companies suggests the opposite. Again I think, what is happening?

Today is one of those long nights in which I will stay up all night, and not because I'm out with my friends.

We are bombed with loads of examples from innovative companies. Actually, the examples are always the same ones: Apple, Google, Facebook, Einstein… Those are companies and figures that, in fact, are part of the innovation myth. stories of success, in which from lonely entrepreneurs become business giants, by acting radically different, and reinventing industries and organizations. People which intellectual and creative level have triggered quantitative leaps for the humankind.

I am a professional woman who always tries to be creative and disruptive. And so was I in the companies where I have worked for. For this reason, when I read those stories, when I receive tweets with some quotes or stories of the above mentioned companies, I open my eyes naively, as I cannot hide a feeling between envy and admiration. However, compared with my personal experience, I see those stories really as far from my own and my customers reality as I can see Rafael Nadal's achievements. And, by the way, I mention him because he is one of my heroes.

I switch to another topic and I read some interesting things about how to innovate. And then, I precisely remember the new meeting areas or lounges in my customer’s modern buildings as well as the new working environment in Microsoft or Google. I read about conceding the necessary freedom to employees to foster their creativity, and about those sessions where having fun and freedom to create comes first. I also read about the importance of an inspiring atmosphere, about colours, about multidisciplinary teams and about games as creativity inductors… Have I also read something about smells? No, I do not think so. I think I am starting to rant.

Therefore, I imagine the innovative process as something funny, ludic, playful. And I’m just with the same feelings experienced before: envy (I want to work in colourful offices!), admiration (those leaders seem so cool!) and, honestly a little of incredulity (Does that truly exist?). In fact, as well as trying to be creative and disruptive, I am very realistic. I can do no more than remembering my experience with the “real innovation”. The daily based one. The one that the market has obliged be to apply if I wanted to survive in my companies.

Two years ago, I attended a creativity workshop of a known innovation consultancy firm. And what I remember the most is that no matter the number of ideas we put on the table, the coach always demanded us to put some more. He always had something to correct, and after all, he was always asking us for more. I ended up exhausted! And I was not even implementing them!

In my consultancy projects, when we face a tough challenge to submit a differential offer to our customers I always require my team to give not 100%, but 200% of their mental capacity. Actually, we work on exhausting sessions, and they can attest to this. We do not have colours, the meeting room smells our sweat and we do not have as much time as we loved. We need to have ideas, disruptive ideas, and we have to have them now. I cannot imagine myself explaining to my customer that we will submit the offer in two months because we were not creative that day. The business pressure do not let us having time to take a breath and look for the “appropriate” environments to innovate. The business pressure does not let us to compose teams just formed by motivated people. Everybody, with no distinction, has to create. No excuses. Exhausted, but we do it.

In my experience with members of the executive committee in the companies I have worked for, we have always tried to break the market, looking for differentiation. And we have tried it numerous times, and we have failed doing so, and we have tried it all over again by other means, and we have tried to be creatives, and we have failed again… Sometimes, we failed because we were not sufficiently creative. Sometimes it was because of our limitations, and sometimes because of our management. But the company should grow up and after many attempts, we finally found a small channel to innovate. It was an exhausting process. But we did it.

As a consultant, many years ago I took part in some projects aimed at industrial installations, where, altogether with customers, we should find the way to optimize the processes and reduce times. I can ensure you that factory facilities is as similar to Google’s as I am to Scarlett Johansson. But we did innovate. And well we did! If we succeeded in doing so, partly was because the future of the factory was on that, and all employees knew it; and in my case, there was the partner’s evaluation and my promotion.

We did not innovate to copy Steve Jobs, or because we thought it was cool to sit on colourful chairs. We innovate because there was not another chance; it was our obligation.

But we innovated with more effort than necessary and less effectiveness than required.

Honestly, I truly believe that in the desire of consultants and gurus to emphasize the need for innovation (with which I agree), we are forgetting about explaining the reality of innovation: innovation is hard, innovation requires sacrifice, and innovation requires effort. Sometimes we fail, others we get discouraged and we do not know how to do it many times. But we must do it, we must learn to do it, it is our obligation as professionals.

And when we consider, as responsible professionals, to innovate and in our mental maps we find Steve Jobs, or Google, or something funny, we consider it as far from our capacities, that we renounce or lose faith in what they tell us.

In short: the messages we receive about the innovation’s promotion are in fact disincentives to innovate! (You cannot deny it, this is really disruptive!)

It is really late at night now. My consultant spirit asks me to leave a sort of methodological recommendations on how to strengthen innovation in the Spanish industrial fabric. But actually, I am rather passionate. So, instead of magic consultant pills, I will provide some small prayers for innovation. After all it is late at night…

To my consultant colleagues, gurus and managers, as an innovation fan, I beg you to…

  • Illustrate us with your results and specific examples, maybe simple but real, related to people like us! Explain us what you got, how you succeed and in which points you failed. Please, Steve Jobs is not with us anymore.
  • Help us in our daily innovation initiatives; being close to us, giving us what we need, cheering us up. We have already forgotten the training lessons we got two months ago, we neither see signs nor read them, and the committes were everything we do is checked are too far from us.
  • Give us an area to create; but we do not need colourful chairs or glass ceilings, we do not even need sweeties and lollipops. Give us some time, give us capacities, resources and courage. Give us examples, and above all, let us innovate.
  • Guide our innovation effort. Tell us what are we looking for, tell us what we need to achieve, tell us what the finish line is. Do not let us to get lost in our effort and sterile ways that exhaust us with no prize. And if we get lost, please help and guide us in the following challenge.
  • Provide us with the guides, give us the methods, define us the steps. Make easier our path. Give us the innovation framework in which we have to move on. But please, one by us and for us; one in which all of us believe.
  • Imply us in the innovation processes; make us feel important for the company’s future, but when we provide the company with all our (limited) knowledge and our incipient creative capacity, do not fade away.
  • Have an action plan for “the after”, accompany the ideas and innovation projects, be involved with the implementation of innovative projects. The ideas, as well as training or creativity sessions are not worth it (and do not motive us either) if there is not a later implementation.

We do not ask for fun, we do not ask to be worldwide stars. We just want that what we do can be useful, and what we do can be done, as much as possible, with less effort.

To ones that have read until here, thank you. I am sorry not to have exhibited a systematic and methodical analysis. As you can see, this has not been based on data or surveys to senior management of companies in Forbes. This is my real experience with my customers, my teams and colleagues from my direction committee. This is my particular view of reality.

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