Posts Tagged ‘Innovation’
“But if you will it, it is not fantasy” – Theodor Herzl
Recently, virtually every organization that I speak with has put innovation front and center as a necessary, in fact imperative characteristic of their organizational cultures. The thinking is clear. In order to thrive in turbulent environments organizations must innovate, must examine the way they do business, update their products and services, and must differentiate themselves in order to outperform the competition. Competition, environmental stress and the need to survive as an organization spur on innovation.
Innovation is often described as coming in bursts, but much more common is the rolling-up-the-sleeves, hard work, incremental innovation, building on other’s breakthroughs, often in a collaborative fashion, that over the long run can radically change the way things work and the products that an organization offers.
It could easily be argued that innovation occurs naturally among all of the earth’s creatures. Species innovate constantly and naturally in the never ending battle to survive. One species of cuckoo finch has eggs that mimic the coloration of another species so that when the finch deposits their eggs into the other species’ nest, the hatched baby birds are raised by the tricked surrogate parents. As a defense the second species, the tawny-flanked prinias evolved more colorful eggs that looked different form the finch’s eggs but the finches responded by evolving and again mimicking the more colorful eggs. Evolution is innovative.
The mitochondria that inhabit our cells and produce the energy which powers cells originated externally from the cells they now inhabit. They have their own DNA and can reproduce only from their own DNA, indicating that they were a separate life form somewhat like bacteria. Prior to their role in our cells they existed independently. Mitochondria entered into a symbiotic relationship with cells and then that combined organism evolved into the variety of cells that make up human beings. Today we would not be able to survive without these creatures living within our cells and the mitochondria would not exist without us. Evolutionary innovation is often collaborative.
Beyond evolving on a biological front, humans evolve and innovate their behaviors constantly if not quickly, with our ancestors developing new forms of stone tools over millennia, fire being tamed, the taking up of living in shelters of one sort or another, and placing metal strips on the teeth of our children to improve function and appearance.
Many of the inventions that propelled our civilization and were described as deriving from “ah-ha” moments were nothing of the sort. Rather the innovative breakthrough came from groundwork that laid the foundation and was then built upon. Basic innovations often sit dormant until additional development work and insights are gained allowing the innovation to be applied in day-to-day life.
Take Edison’s light bulb for instance. It is often credited to Edison as a singular event. And in fact Edison played a very important role in the light bulb, but without the innovations of those who came both before and after him the light bulb would not have become as wide spread as it has. Here is a chronology of the major milestones.
• The first electric light was made in 1800 by Humphry Davy. When he connected wires to his newly invented battery and a piece of carbon, the carbon glowed, producing light.
• Much later, in 1860, physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was determined to devise a practical, long-lasting electric light. He found that a carbon paper filament worked well, but burned up quickly. In 1878, he demonstrated his new electric lamps in Newcastle, England.
• In 1877, Charles Francis Brush manufactured some carbon arcs to light a public square in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. These arcs were used on a few streets, in a few large office buildings, and even some stores. Electric lights were only used by a few people.
• Thomas Alva Edison experimented with thousands of different filaments to find just the right materials to glow well and be long-lasting. In 1879, Edison discovered that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb glowed but did not burn up for 40 hours. Edison eventually produced a bulb that could glow for over 1500 hours.
• Lewis Howard Latimer improved the bulb by inventing a carbon filament (patented in 1881); Latimer was a member of Edison’s research team, which was called “Edison’s Pioneers.” In 1882, Latimer developed and patented a method of manufacturing his carbon filaments.
• In 1903, Willis R. Whitney invented a treatment for the filament so that it wouldn’t darken the inside of the bulb as it glowed.
• In 1910, William David Coolidge (1873-1975) invented a tungsten filament which lasted even longer than the older filaments. The incandescent bulb revolutionized the world. (Enchanted Learning).
Rather than being the exception the “evolution” of the light bulb is very often how innovation occurs with multiple people contributing, often working collaboratively over a period of time.
There are multiple methods available for measuring the existence of innovation in organizations. You could count the number of patents issued to the organization, or the age of each of its product’s since design, the amount of time that employees spend on innovation, the R&D budget, the headcount assigned to “innovation”, or the perceptions of the customers towards the organization’s products and services as being innovative. One method for measuring the degree of innovation in organizations is through the perceptions of the employees.
Employee surveys will often ask about the “emphasis” on innovation within the organization, but I prefer asking about whether innovation is actually occurring. Critical when measuring innovation through employee surveys is to ask about:
• the generation of innovative ideas;
• the ability to test out those ideas from a funding and other resources standpoint;
• the ability to evaluate innovations to see which one’s should be implemented organization-wide and which ones rejected.
Examining or asking about the reward system is also often very informative as an organization may truly desire to be innovative, but is actually rewarding its employees for playing it safe and not trying new things rather than the innovative efforts desired.
Slack and redundancy are two concepts that are also critical to be in place for an organization to successfully innovate. If an organization is being run in such a tight fashion with no slack so that it can’t try new things, because all resources are dedicated to getting the work done the traditional way, the ability to be innovative does not exist. And likewise if the organization does not have the ability to experiment with new methods, while another redundant process is performing in a traditional fashion, the evaluation of innovative ideas and processes will be very difficult to objectively assess.
Organizational innovation is critical and creating organizational cultures that support innovation rather than suppress it is within reach for all organizations.
© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
The arrow of time in our universe is unidirectional, moving from the past, to the present and forward into the future. No matter how much we might desire to freeze moments that are precious to us, capturing forever their special meanings, they slip through our fingers as time marches on oblivious, neither slowing, standing still, nor retreating from its own journey. Though we sometimes seem to view ourselves as disconnected observers of time, remembering past and projecting or modifying the future from some place outside of the flow, we live within the time flow and are firmly subject to it.
One thing that is certain, as time moves forward things change. Things change for people as well as for organizations, inexorably. And just like you cannot control the flow of time in which we reside, you cannot slow down, stop or reverse change from happening. But both individuals and organizations can do things that will help them cope with change and to deal with, mitigate and even use its effects to personal and organizational advantage.
One key to dealing with the effects of change is to become more resilient, on an individual level and an organizational level. How does a child raised in poverty in the Bronx rise to become a Supreme Court judge, or a child from humble roots in Ohio become the Speaker of the House, or a child raised by a teen mom, in an unstable, unpredictable environment, rise to become President of the United States? These were not children of privilege, these were children of resilience. Look at the innumerable children of immigrants, living and growing up in marginal conditions, who over the years became the engines of our economic prosperity, the pillars of our educational institutions, the creative geniuses behind our innovations and technological breakthroughs, or perhaps simply the doctor who saves the life of your child.
Organizations of resilience are seen everywhere we turn, from family farms, to single proprietor craftspeople, to large private sector corporations, to governmental entities, to NGOs and educational institutions. During the course of a year these organizations may be dealing with recession and the resultant drop in business, the next a merger or acquisition perhaps a hostile takeover, the next a disruptive new competitor, the next a disruptive new technology. Each and every organization out there today will have a continuous stream of challenges that they will need to successfully overcome. And in today’s environment those challenges are coming at them at a faster and more furious pace. How do these organizations become more rather than less resilient to the forces that will constantly impinge and perhaps even use the constant state-of-change to their advantage?
Resiliency is the notion of positive adaptation when faced with significant adversity or environmental threats. This definition implies that significant threats or severe adversity is present and that the individual or organization positively copes with those threats. The research that has been done on resiliency has shown that being more resilient rather than less leads to more positive outcomes for both individuals and organizations. And it is pretty clear that organizations that partake of certain activities can enhance their resiliency. Cutting across the literature the activities that make organizations more resilient seem to fall within 3 main buckets. The first one is paying attention to and mitigating the effects of the external environmental factors. The second bucket is investing in organizational capabilities and the third is recognition of achievements. Each of these buckets has sub-activities that could be summarized as follows:
Monitoring: Information collection, environmental monitoring and the appropriate analysis, dissemination and actions surrounding that information (for example, employee, customer and supplier surveys, mystery shopper, competitive benchmarking, technology awareness monitoring, market trends, the gathering and analysis of other business metrics)
Reducing: Minimizing the occurrence of negative chain reactions that can occur from one threat, before they spiral out of control. Compartmentalization of negative events so that they do not affect the entire organization. (for example, by the use of strong internal and external communications networks, strong accountability systems).
Warding: Investing in a shared vision, a shared operating style, senior leadership, employees, products and services, and quality—the standardization of those products and services as well as organizational procedures. (for example, creating a customer service culture, of a values statement, or a standard of operational excellence)
Transforming: Turning risks into opportunities by developing a culture of innovative and creating organizational capabilities (for example, rewarding innovative ideas and performance that goes above and beyond to solve problems, creating deep bench strength, tapping into the diversity of talent and developing that talent)
Enhancing: Increasing organizational effectiveness and efficacy (for example, cost control, state-of-the-art business processes, contingency planning)
Celebrating: Celebrating and rewarding organizational and personal accomplishments (for example, successful completion of organizational and personal goals; installing robust reward and recognition systems)
In reviewing a number of models and then stepping back from any single model of organizational performance, there appear to be six enduring challenges that virtually any organization faces in its pursuit of growth and financial sustainability, in terms of increasing its resiliency or, more generally, Organizational Vitality. These are the challenges that organizations need to become more resilient upon. Three of these challenges can be viewed as internally focused and there can be viewed as externally focused. They are:
Clear and Compelling Leadership. The overarching mission and direction of the organization needs to be developed and translated through its leaders in order to properly secure and align resources.
Engaged Employees. Organizations need to create an engaging experience to encourage the most from the people who fuel the processes, create the innovation, and deliver for the customers.
Quality Work Processes. Products need to be efficiently created and, along with services, effectively delivered.
Attractive Offerings. Organizations seek to create value by providing customers—particularly paying customers—with valued and competitive products and services.
Service Orientation. Organizations need to instill a service orientation. No matter what the organization offers, it must be offered in a manner that distinguishes the organization.
Customer as Brand Advocates. Developing brand advocates who are willing to speak highly of your products or service in this interconnected age is critical.
Increasing an organization’s resiliency like any other activity is not a magic bullet that solves each and every problem faced, however the evidence does seem clear that resiliency enhancement can have positive and lasting organizational performance improvement affects.
Saltzman, J.M. & Brooks, S.M. (2010), Strategic Surveying in the Global Marketplace and the Role of Vitality Measures. In Lundby, K. (ed.), Going Global: Practical Applications and Recommendations for HR and OD Professionals in the Global Workplace. Jossey Bass.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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