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Over the last 18 months we have seen the rise of internal and external innovation labs. There are corporate accelerators, coworking spaces and business incubators now available for startups and corporates alike. There are hackathons, open innovation events and innovation challenges designed to attract the best and brightest to challenges big and small. And while these labs can provide your organisation with an innovation kick start, they rely on the consistent leadership and guidance of an internal champion. A head of innovation. A Chief Innovation Officer. A CEO with a desire for transformation.

But it’s not enough to have innovation leadership and support. There must also be culture. Process. Metrics and accountability. Creativity and science. Yes, we need all these things.

But almost before we have all these things, we also need “business as usual”. We need a sustaining business force. We need revenue and investment. And expertise. There needs to be space and resources – and all of these things cost. And with every cost, every investment, comes accountability. As much as we are drawn to innovation, we must also be drawn to the skills and experience that allow us to be accountable for the business delivery (or social impact) of that investment. We need the best of both worlds.

The innovation black box

From the outside, innovation seems slightly magical. Ideas and inspiration go in one side of a huge box (call it an innovation lab) and new products or services appear on the other side. The intensity within the black box – the iteration, workshopping and creativity – is largely held away from the rest of the organisation. Those that do peer in, are greeted by walls of colourful post-it notes, butcher’s paper and standup desks. And almost all of the techniques (such as those that we advocate), require rigid time boxing. That is, the constraint that drives progress is time.

But the heartbeat of your innovation program works at odds with the rest of most organisations. The two are out of sync with each other.

Your urgency is not their urgency.

In fact, your innovation urgency is liable to disrupt the steady flow of service and product delivery within the larger organisation. For the head of innovation – or chief innovation officer – the challenge is to manage the innovation flow from the lab to the business. It’s about opening up the arteries of the organisation so that new products and services can flow. Be absorbed. Become part of the flow.

In many ways, the role of the innovator leader is to even out the innovation flow of an organisation in much the same way that beta blockers even out the blood pressure in our bodies. The Mayo Clinic describes beta blockers as:

… medications that reduce your blood pressure. Beta blockers work by blocking the effects of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. When you take beta blockers, the heart beats more slowly and with less force, thereby reducing blood pressure. Beta blockers also help blood vessels open up to improve blood flow.

Consuming innovation

Let’s think about innovation, then, not as something that HAPPENS TO our organisation, but something that our organisation consumes. A vitality. A life force. An energy. This allows us to rethink innovation – and understand what it takes to not just produce innovation but to move it through the firm. How do we allow innovation to reach our customers faster? How do we direct it to our partner networks in the most efficient way? And how do we use this force to sustain and revitalise our organisation?

This is the strategic thinking required by our innovation leadership. We need to unblock the arteries of our organisations and clear the way for the innovation that will sustain and nourish us.

The risk of not doing so is innovation arrhythmia. And no one wants that.