Reflections on Innovation and recent opinion piece in NY Times

People often ask me about what metrics I would use to evaluate an organization’s level of “innovation”. Depending on how well I know that person, I sometimes flippantly respond with a question (or two; the first one being the more important one):

  • Has the organization recently created an “Innovation Center” or team? This is usually a big red flag that there is no innovation culture that permeates the organization, so the company creates a “innovation” organization and hires “innovation associates” to help the company “ideate” and “innovate”. The end result is more process, less innovation.
  • What percent of your individual contributors’ day is spent in meetings? When people who should be doing things, researching things, designing things, building things are instead stuck in pointless meetings (you know which ones I mean) then the organization has an execution problem that will come back to haunt them later. Their time would probably be better spent on solving problems and implementing solutions.

On a related note, I thought the following quote from a recent New York Times opinion piece on Innovation and Bell Labs was particularly apropos:

By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

I would add “Regrettably, building ‘innovation centers’ passes for innovation today.” The author describes Bell Labs’ founders’ philosophy of innovation:

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.

I tend to agree with this approach. You need (empowered) cross-functional teams working cohesively to develop new solutions, given organizational resources (time and budget to do proof of concepts, testing, and take risks) to get an innovative culture going. “Innovation centers” are often a symptom of siloed organizations. When employees bemoan going to another “innovation session,” that is usually a sign that the latest “corporate initiative” to promote innovation is not working. Sometimes the best thing to do is to admit you have a siloed organization and take steps to reshape. This takes true leadership (at the most senior levels) and effective change management. It is easier said than done.


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