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- Rikus Grobler
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In the previous article I discussed the value of innovation and why it is worth pursuing. So up until now, I have established the definition of innovation and why it is important. Now, with such a powerful “weapon” at an organisation’s disposal, how do you decide where to aim it? In this article, I want to share my views on where organisations must focus innovation to get the most out of it.
Where to focus innovation?
Before we can answer the question of focus, I need to clarify two concepts with regards to the classification of innovation. Classification of innovation is in itself a much debated concept and researchers have gone quite overboard with this topic. For the purpose of this discussion, only two classification elements are applicable. They are the type of innovation, which can be product, process (or service if you like) and business model, and the dimension of the innovation, which can be incremental (small) or radical (disruptive).
The type of innovation is evident enough and I will dwell on it in later articles, but I would like to comment on the dimension of innovation. There are views that it is only innovation if it is a significant change – usually associated with spending a lot of money. My view is that if it adds value, no matter how small, it should also be classified as innovation. As an example, I would like to tell this story: A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty boxes, without the tube inside. To resolve the problem, they hired an engineering company to solve the problem. The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, third-parties selected, and six months (and US$8million) later they had a fantastic solution. They solved the problem by using high-tech precision scales that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box would weigh less than it should. The line would stop, and someone had to walk over and yank the defective box out of it, pressing another button when done to re-start the line. However, after three weeks, the factory manager noticed that the bell is not ringing and the lights are not flashing any more. Puzzled, he walked up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed. A few feet before the scale, there was a US$20 desk fan, blowing the empty boxes off of the belt and into a bin. “Oh, that”, said one of the workers, “One of the guys put it there because he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang”. Whether it is true or not, I do not know, but I am pretty sure that accounts like these happen every day! Incremental innovation is sometimes called things like “continuous improvement” or “business process management” or “quality management”. The Japanese call it “Kaizen”, which can literally be translated as “change for the better”. The pursuit of achieving this “continuous improvement” in organisations is usually structured in some form of programme or project, which can make it more effective, but it is usually much more difficult changing the mind-set of people than to implement a structured “continuous improvement” effort.
So, to answer the question of where do you focus innovation, my answer is everywhere. It is a mind-set of how can we do things better, easier, faster, cheaper or whatever objective the organisation is trying to achieve. Innovation does not have to be this big, undercover, high-flying endeavour, it can be as simple as installing a desk fan…
I want to make it clear that I am not saying that innovation should not be a “big” thing, it is important to align your innovation strategy with your business strategy, the topic for the next article, but I believe that if you get the little things right, the big ideas and the big innovations will come so much easier.
Next Time In the next delivery I will discuss how to align your innovation strategy with your organisation strategy and business objectives. I conclude with a quote by William Pollard: “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”
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