'Innovation managers have to be politically savvy street-fighters'

by Cecilia Thirlway, on 22 Jun 2017 3 min read

How is your fuzzy front end? A cat nose.

I’m suffering from information overload right now, having spent most of last week at the  Front End of Innovation conference having interesting conversations with inspiring people.

As ever, there were some key recurring themes around innovation ( discussed in previous posts), but I picked up some interesting additional dimensions, met some great people, and learned some completely new things.Culture remains a huge topic, particularly the importance of building an innovation culture in your organisation.

It was interesting to hear from  Wynne Lewis of  3M, famous for its innovation culture, about how they use their strategic targets to promote innovation: 30% of its revenue comes from products that are under three years old. Organisations must be willing to build innovation into the very fabric of their business in this way, including how they reward and motivate their people, if they really want it to take hold. As  Yuval Dvir of Google said ‘technology is only as good as the people implementing it, and the people are only as good as the culture they’re in.’

Professor Julian Birkinshaw’s session on making your business fit for the future took culture a stage further, as he suggested that businesses needed to become adhocracies (as opposed to bureaucracies or meritocracies), where initiative-taking, experimentation, collaboration and creativity combine to make an organisational capable of fast responses to changing context. This makes sense: as the amount of data we can collect and analyse grows, what you know and your competitors don’t is no longer necessarily a source of competitive advantage. Instead, it’s about how quickly you can react and take action even with partial or incomplete information: experiment, test and learn rather than waiting too long to make the ‘right’ decision.

I've been thinking a lot about stories lately, and this conference provided some great examples of storytelling. The stories people tell can be very revealing about organisational culture, and can also be a powerful way of changing a culture. Stories ran through every conference session, from AkzoNobel’s open innovation case study, to the tale of how slime moulds can design a national rail system in around 26 hours from Michael Pawlyn of Exploration-Architecture.

But it's not just about what stories people tell, it's also about how they're told. David Thomas of Mars discussed how establishing a common vocabulary and language around innovation is crucial to embedding it, while Dr Jonathan Mall of Neuroflash demonstrated the unconscious biases that we all communicate through language.

Another familiar topic making its presence felt was leadership commitment. As Harvey Wade of Cisco outlined, leaders need to not just be involved in innovation programmes, but set the overall direction and share the insights, successes and just as importantly failures widely to demonstrate their commitment (more stories!) I found it particularly interesting to hear from Luke Mansfield of PepsiCo, whose presentation was less about the process of innovation and more about making it successful in a large organisation, where return on investment comes under close scrutiny.

An innovation consultant recently told me: ‘People think innovation managers need to be people with lots of ideas – that’s not true. They have to be politically savvy street fighters to keep their programmes alive long enough to demonstrate value.’ This was absolutely the theme of Luke Mansfield’s session – he suggested that many innovation programmes end prematurely as organisations run out of patience, and advised delegates to do giant things, early on, to gain visibility and approval. I particularly liked his analogy that large organisations necessarily evolve processes to protect themselves from fools, and as innovation can often look a lot like foolishness, this can be a problem.

Finally, there were some great technical sessions – Angela Maurer of Tesco Labs showed us some of the tech they were trialling with families and in stores; Amber Case discussed the benefits of calm technology (including the lovely phrase ‘technology that gracefully degrades’); and I finally learned of a good use for the Phillips Hue lightbulbs.

Topics:Innovation Management