Last week, I got into a robust discussion at work, some might even classify it as an argument, and looking back it was ultimately my fault.  I broke a cardinal rule of successful innovation: I was making a change without having justified it.  You tend to see this happen from time to time, and it goes by a variety of names such as skunkworks, 20% time, secret squirrel projects, etc. and looks to those outside the project that innovation is all about sneaking round processes and people to get an outcome that ultimately few people outside the project are bought into.

But… if you’re doing skunkworks in an organisation you’re throwing away one of the principal benefits of being in an organisation, which is the ability to draw on a wide range of resources to help you achieve your goal.  If you don’t utilise these resources, you’re effectively working as an n-person group (where n is typically a very small integer) in a virtual garage somewhere within the organisation.  It’s true to say x% of garage startups (where x is a large integer approaching 100) die because they aren’t properly supported, either financially or through specialised expertise (how do you expect to build the world’s next Great Widget when you have to do the accounting yourself?).  The same happens with most skunkworks projects, except the run rate is even worse because an outside influence (your management) can quite legitimately make you go and do something else with your day.

Skunkworks works when you get someone outside the team to care about it enough to resource it (going back to the garage analogy, the idea survives because it manages to attract seed funding).  This is what I mean by Doing It Wrong, since you’re hastily retrofitting the steps you should have taken at the start (e.g. securing backing) to allow the project to continue.   To do this right I think you need the following three skills in the team if you’re going to innovate successfully:

  • talented people
  • a good, well-defined idea or vision
  • change management

The first two are self-explanatory, but the third is, I think, the key to being successful at innovation within the organisation: innovation is change therefore you need to understand how to make changes in the organisation.  You have to identify stakeholders who you will need to gather resources from (people, hardware, time, etc.) and bring them along for the ride, from the first blue-sky ideas session to the point where the project is accepted into the organisation’s mainstream activities.  You need to make allies of these people because they are the ones who are most likely to stall or kill the idea (they may still do that, in which case you need to be objective: are their reasons justified? Was there actually something flawed in your idea?).

There are a bunch of change management models out there on the interweb.  One particular model I’ve used successfully is ADKAR. The steps to successful change can be summarised in terms of innovation as:

  1. Awareness: make stakeholders aware of the idea. Socialise it.
  2. Desire: let everyone know why it’s a good idea. Sell it. Tell them why they should want to do it
  3. Knowledge: let people know how to make the change. How do they get to There from Here?
  4. Ability: tool up. Make sure you have the necessary people on the job to make it a success. Train them if necessary, recruit them if you have to
  5. Reinforcement: embed the change into the organisation, make it part of the everyday operation

This is where I have seen innovation projects fall down.  You may be all over #3 but if you haven’t got #1 and #2 bedded down you don’t have #4 and certainly will find it very difficult to then achieve #5.  The gotcha is thinking you have #4 nailed because you are thinking in terms of the immediate team, whereas you’re nowhere near achieving #4 because you don’t have the other necessary people on the project to make it a success in the long term.

So, going back to to the work argument, what did I do wrong? I had an idea, socialised it less widely than I should have, and tried to kick off the project.  The result was a number of previously unidentified stakeholders scrambling to understand the idea in a compressed timeframe and therefore not buying in, and a rush to get through steps #1, #2 and #3 above in time to kick off the project on schedule.  This is not optimal… innovation is (by definition) not the business-as-usual work that people are used to seeing; it’s going to take longer to understand and needs more mental effort.  Innovation is hard enough without adding this extra pressure.

Innovation is all about a passion for new ideas.  Sometimes this manifests as a breakneck desire to drive change through regardless, but this is doing it wrong.  Similarly, all that you achieve in hiding innovation in special innovation groups with special dispensation is singling out innovation as a foreign body in the system.  In the end you’re highly likely to end up strangling your own idea and getting frustrated in the process.  On the other hand, if you lay the groundwork carefully the innovative idea looks just like a normal project and earns the right to the resources it needs.  If you can stop talking about seeding innovation and start talking instead about laying out a company strategy, you’re doing it right.