The other side of innovation

In this week's book review Ellen DiResta looks at The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, two faculty members from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, published by Harvard Business Review.

I’ll start by saying that this is one of the most useful books on innovation I’ve read in a long time.  I want all of my clients to read it.  A few months ago, I wrote a post cautioning business leaders against expecting innovation to happen within their development processes.  In this book, the authors focus on this point, and provide clear guidance for developing innovative ideas that cannot (or should not) be developed within the existing development process. The book is broken into four main parts.

Choosing the path for a new idea development

In the introduction, the authors provide some good background information to help the reader to discern whether or not a new idea should be developed within the current development process, or whether a new process should be created.  They use clear examples, and illustrate which types of ideas the current processes should be able to handle, and show examples of companies that have executed both within new and existing processes.

In this section they also lay the groundwork for their basic premise that managing innovation is not a wild, maveric process.  It is a controlled, disciplined process that looks very different from managing the day to day business.  The rest of the book discusses how to create and manage the new process once it is determined that the innovation cannot be developed within the existing process.

Executing innovation – Team Selection

The next two sections present the heart of their recommendations for executing innovation.  The first section contains three chapters discussing how to build the team.  They call the team charged with developing the new innovation the Dedicated Team, and clearly point out how this is different from the team that is charged with managing day to day development, called the Performance Engine.

These designations are very useful, and the authors do an excellent job of describing how the two teams need to collaborate, how to select people for the Dedicated Team, and how to manage the partnership between the two.

They also make a nice distinction between the responsibilities and challenges the leader of the Dedicated Team will face, and the role of the senior executives who need to support them.  What I found particularly useful is that they identified just about every “pink elephant” that could be in the room when discussing these issues, and this book could be used as a guide to foster objective discussions about potentially sensitive issues.

Executing innovation – Managing the innovation initiative

The second of the two sections discusses the management of the innovation initiative itself, referring to the work of the Dedicated Team as running a disciplined experiment. These chapters provide an excellent resource for illustrating how the work of executing innovation is very different from the work of the day to day development process.  It discusses performance metrics, and how Performance Engine metrics will be harmful to the execution of innovation initiatives.  They present an enlightening way to talk about planning, acknowledging that plans for innovation initiatives can only be based on assumptions.

The goal of the process is to focus on learning, considering the initial plan as a hypothesis, and adjusting it as more information is learned.  They also discuss the fundamental difference between this approach and the Performance Engine approach, which is to focus on results and adherence to plan.  Again many “pink elephants” are exposed as the authors point to the many ways it is easy to fall into the trap of using Performance Engine metrics when evaluating against assumptions.

Conclusions – sharing innovation myths

The final section is the conclusion, and here the authors share several innovation myths, many of which center around one main idea.  Managing the innovation process is not the result of people breaking rules, creating crazy ideas, and throwing things against the wall to see what sticks; what I have called running a casino inside your company.  Instead, managing innovation requires just as much discipline and rigor as managing the Performance Engine.

There is no room for running on autopilot, as the team needs to be on their toes constantly to evaluate what they are doing to see if they are getting closer to their goal.  The authors do a great job of calling out and dispelling these myths repeatedly throughout the book, and it’s nice to see them listed out at the end.

Finally, this book is clearly for people looking to manage the execution of innovative ideas to make them real within an organization.  It is not for people who are looking create new ideas.  In fact there was only one statement I disagreed with, and it came at the end of the book.  As the authors were reiterating their point that innovation cannot happen without disciplined execution, they correctly point to the fact that most organizations focus most of their innovation efforts on the Big Idea Hunt.  They then say that the Idea Hunt may be serendipitous and difficult to manage, but that this random nature applies only to the Idea Hunt.

Here I strongly disagree.  In my work, I apply similar principles and discipline to the Idea Hunt.  What this tells me is that regardless of whether you are trying to create new ideas, or develop the most promising ones, developing innovative ideas is anything but random and Govindarajan and Trimble have presented an excellent guide for how to execute them.

By Ellen DiResta

About Ellen DiResta

Ellen Di Resta is the founder of Synaptics Group, an advisory and research consultancy that helps clients to develop market-relevant innovation. She has held leadership positions in strategic innovation and new product development at Design Continuum and CR Bard. Her work has spanned global markets, and her clients have ranged from large multinationals such as Procter and Gamble and Boston Scientific, to small start-ups.
Ellen is also a frequent guest lecturer on innovation topics at Boston University, and she is spearheading new research to codify personnel selection for innovation.
Ellen Di Resta has a BS in engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology, an MS in design from the University of North Texas, and an MBA from Boston University where her thesis focused on organizational factors to foster innovation within corporations. Ellen has also led teams that have been recognized with the IDEA award for design excellence, the Bottom Line Design award, and the AG Lafley design award for realizing business goals.
  • http://www.pragmaxis.com Peter Balbus

    Yes! Finally a book that gets past the over-emphasis on the ideation phase of innovation and focuses on the much more difficult and critical commercialization phases.

    As a strategic innovation and technology commercialization consultant for more than 20 years, I have the scars and blisters as evidence of the complexity and difficulty of bringing innovation to global markets – and the hard work required to be successful.

    Takes a lot more than an idea exchange and collaboration platform to be successful with innovation – continuously and sustainably.

  • http://www.synapticsgroup.com Ellen

    I agree with you Peter. I especially appreciated the fact that they advocate allowing the “performance engine” do what it does best. Too many companies try to get the “performance engine” to do both new and existing work. It’s unrealistic!

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