Bill Sanders

By Bill Sanders

The Innovation Prism

The Innovation Prism 150 150 Bill Sanders

U.S. Bid to Stem Steel Imports Faces Hurdles
Verizon, for First Time, Loses Core Wireless Customers
GM Ceases Venezuela Operations After Plant Is Seized
Tesla Recalls Model S and Model X Vehicles Over Faulty Parking Brakes
Wal-Mart Brings Price War to Groceries

Those are just five headlines from today’s WSJ (4/20/17) that collectively illustrate the difficulty of staying innovative while running a business. Operating and growing a business is a demanding responsibility that tends to distract from innovation. Operating, fundamentally, is about coloring inside the lines. It’s about efficiencies, cost management, risk mitigation, and problem-solving. Foreign competition and regulation, domestic competition with new price structures, nationalization, and quality control issues with your product require intense focus to react and respond appropriately. And those pressures generally mean that innovation takes a backseat as a corporate priority or receives lip service at best.

And yet almost all our clients will admit, most frequently over an adult beverage, that despite how well they are currently doing, they are concerned that they aren’t innovative enough. They worry, correctly, that new competitors are arising that have developed different cost structures and that customer tastes and behaviors are changing at a more aggressive rate. They also are concerned that they have technology gaps that they haven’t solved for their current business model, much less being able to leverage the new technology for innovations of their own.

Their companies are filled with smart, hardworking people who were trained to do things “right,” to solve problems, and to manage the work that is in front of them. Their companies are not filled with rebels, pioneers, and entrepreneurs. In my experience, corporate structures in most mature companies usually aren’t that great of an environment for the independent mindset that accompanies those players. And yet it’s those very players who are disrupting business as usual. Consistent innovation is now table stakes.

And yet innovation isn’t magic or some mysterious skill that needs to be applied in some basement skunkworks department. Innovation is a discipline. A discipline that the best most progressive companies are integrating into their cultures across all departments and disciplines.

We call it the Innovation Prism. A prism, as you may remember from high school physics, obeys the law of refraction to separate white light into its various color components. Developing a company innovation prism allows leadership to see their business in a different light, refracting out and identifying the correct data to respond to, innovative ideas worth pursuing, and people who need support and training.

The Four Elements of the Innovation Prism

The first element that is required is a proactive, committed C-Suite champion. Innovation is first and foremost an issue of priorities, and despite all egalitarian claims to the contrary, the C-Suite still drives the decisions on priorities. The leader must be committed to the long-term implementation process. Embedding innovation in a company culture is not another quarterly initiative.

The second element is a supportive enough environment to begin. Our priority Innovation Readiness Assessment measures the current corporate cultural perception across the following areas: risk tolerance, resilience, adaptability, determination, comfort with ambiguity, cohesiveness, and process petrification. Like the budget above, the higher the Innovation readiness assessment, the faster you can afford to move.

Element three is a budget. Innovation requires time. It means giving team members space to work and time to think. It’s not an after-hours project. The more budget you are willing to prioritize, the quicker you can move.

The final element is an innovation framework. A consistent way of identifying, assessing, judging risk, funding, testing, and exploiting innovations. There are dozens of methods and models. And everyone one of them must be adapted to your company’s current state and business model as well as being molded to move you toward your future ideal state.

With these in place, you can begin to see the various “colors” of innovation as distinct from the “white light” of operating your currently successful business. Your opportunities will become clearer, your competitive threats will begin to recede, and you have the beginnings of a virtual cycle that will feed upon itself. The corporate world is littered with attempts to innovate that were undertaken with two or even three of these elements. But if all four aren’t in place, you’ll not only be starving your organization of the potential results; you’ll be inoculating it against the very ideas and precepts you are working to implement.