Putting Higher Principles into Innovation Management: How to Be Guided by The Classical Approach to People

As innovation becomes a prevalent activity in organizations is it time to rethink how we approach the culture of innovative people? Deborah Mills-Scofield who previously worked with Bell Labs and now consults on innovations practice, argues we need a return to timeless values if we are going to make innovation sustainable.

One of the missing ingredients in much innovation literature is the character of the people involved in innovation work and how we might use WHO we are to achieve results. Programmatic innovation in large companies, especially, can be a lonely place. In the old days you had the camaraderie of the labs (my own career began at Bell labs and the mere mention of the name made us feel good) – today the innovator is being asked to change people’s mindsets and attitudes to work, to acquire new ideas, tell people their ideas won’t be used, encourage more people into the system, devise new evaluation methods, change how the company goes about stage gating or iterating unpromising products. It’s like being part of the gang but also apart from it. Innovation managers are often on the outside looking in and the inside looking out. It is a new position.

Because of that position, people who are involved in innovation need to develop and communicate values, the new values of the company and the values of innovative behaviour. Many of those values are actually eternal. We don’t need to innovate our ethics.

I want to propose a return, for a moment at least, to some Classic Virtues, the ones that began with Aristotle and Plato. Innovation, as any practitioner knows is part art and part science. Based on the work of my wise colleagues, Dr. Alan Kolp, Dr. Peter Rea and Pierre Everaert in their book “Igniting Innovation with Integrity: Following the B.R.I.C. Road”, the importance of balancing Art and Science in applying the virtues to innovation becomes clear. Focusing on classic virtues allows us to distinguish when to apply the innovators art and when to rely on the science, Art (Right Brain: design, ideation, sensing, intuition) and Science (Left Brain: process, procedure, discipline) in innovation, and it gives us a framework for applying and communicating the right moral strengths as we do so. So innovation: Art and Science – and the character traits we need to do both.

Courage is critical to innovation.  In most organizations today, it takes courage to challenge the status quo, to try something untried, to propose unprecedented solutions.  People get fired, or side-lined, for doing this and yet it is vital to a company’s survival.

The art of innovation here is the mindset to lead change, to recognize disruptions in the market and customers needs and behaviors and to act on them. Think of companies like Netflix, Apple, Best Buy, and Patagonia.  Art finds ways to overcome innovation barriers like fear of failure, risk aversion, silos and preservation of status quo.  Adjustments to reward and recognition systems can have a big impact.  Hershey Foods gives people who dare to think differently a special award, “The Exalted Order of the Extended Neck.”  Science creates risk mitigation and management strategies for financial, reputational, execution and other risks.  The “S-curve” is helpful for understanding product life-cycles.  Effective cross-discipline and cross-stakeholder teams bring needed diverse perspectives to innovate.  Additionally, building failure and applied learnings into the innovation process helps boost Courage.

The Art of Innovation is the mindset to lead change, to recognize disruptions in the market and customers needs and behaviors and to act on them. Art finds ways to overcome innovation barriers like fear of failure, risk aversion, silos and preservation of status quo.

Faith comes from Latin fides and fiducia, from which we get fiduciary, ironic isn’t it? Faith and trust are synonymous; we trust in something or someone to do as promised. So, it makes sense that Faith is increased with authenticity and honesty. This is why we obviously place little faith in our politicians. At its core, Faith assumes that worth and worthiness are aligned, that our view of something’s value (worth) is integrally tied to its being valuable (worth valuing, worthy).  Can you think of something you are willing to pay a lot for that you don’t really find valuable?  This is partly why Faith relies on past experience as confirmation. Do you check to see if your car will start? Do you wonder if the sun will rise each morning?  Aren’t most of the things we have Faith in intangible? In things we can’t see. Our capital markets highlight Faith’s role in innovation. Just look at the market caps of Apple, Nike, and Google.

Is Google’s market cap of $193B based on amazing computer servers and communication networks? Hardly! It’s based on Google’s algorithms, people, corporate culture of innovation and the belief, experience, that they will continue to produce worth, value. This is why Google’s valuation can fluctuate depending on what pundits say and competitors do that don’t impact Google’s computer and network infrastructure.  Art helps manage these intangibles. The Faith you put in your people inspire them to achieve.

Science protects and creates value and wealth.  Despite all the talk about people as a company’s greatest asset, few really measure it.  It is still easier to measure the tangible capital (e.g., ROI and ROA on tangible “stuff”) than on human capital.  Science provides tools to measure the economic value of reputation, good will, and most importantly, talent and culture.

Art knows that learning from failure helps ascertain fact from fiction.  If a company does not innovate – iteratively trying, failing, learning, applying – it cannot be sustained.

Hope. It is an understatement to say that without hope we are nothing. Hope looks ahead to the future and is based on Faith (Trust).  It should be rooted in facts, not fantasy, lest it becomes hallucination. As with Faith, Hope is based on experience, learning and application, which means in order to hope, there must be freedom to fail. Art knows that learning from failure helps ascertain fact from fiction.  If a company does not innovate – iteratively trying, failing, learning, applying – it cannot be sustained.  Google’s labs, Novartis, Amazon, and BMW are mastering Hope.  They recognize that investing in innovation, is a must have, not a need to have.  Science employs tools to generate, vet and commercialize ideas.  Asking the right questions can be more important than getting the right answers.  Many companies use tools to vet, prioritize and commercialize ideas (e.g., Stage Gate, Real-Win-Worth*), building failure into the process.

Justice may be the most complicated of the virtues.  Justice addresses the difference between fair and equal. Every parent knows this distinction! In business, do we compensate equally or fairly? Can you do both? Do we create wealth for our company only or for others, including our communities, as well? Art applies triple bottom line to innovate offerings that provide economic growth and preserve the environmental. The challenge is the order – is it people, planet, profits or are profits really put first? Patagonia, Toms of Maine, Whole Foods come to mind as companies who make terrific products while helping the environment. Science provides tools to Do Well AND Do Good – Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  CSR aligns intent with outcome (not output!).  C. K. Prahalad was passionate about the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP), the over 2.5B people living in poverty around the world who are a huge market for improving, not cluttering, quality of life.  Companies such as Unilever and P&G are doing just this.  And, while this wasn’t as critical for attracting talent in the 20th Century, it is in the 21st.  People, especially Generation Y-ers, want to work for companies that use profits to take care of people and the planet.

Love.  So what in the world does love have to do with innovation? Well, usually we are passionate about things we love. This is the basis for innovating – passion for people and/or ideas.  Love is classically defined as Eros, Philos and Agape.  Eros is passion, desire, devotion, respect – foundational to innovation.  Philos is friendship (Philadelphia – City of Brotherly Love), camaraderie, teams, and partners.  Agape is compassion and sacrifice, concern for others over self, servant leadership.  Art is what and who we know and to whom we will deliver an offering.  Examples are exemplary customer service (think Zappos), solutions for real customer problems, and creating environments in which employees can succeed.  Science give us tools, such as Voice of the “x”  to understand articulated and unarticulated customer, employee and even community needs and issues for identifying how to create meaningful value.

Most people quit their bosses, not their companies.

Prudence is practical wisdom with common sense.  It is reasoned and disciplined, which are not oxymorons with innovation, but help turn invention into something useful, focused and accidental (e.g., Ivory Soap, Silly Putty, etc.). It’s ok to make mistakes, just make different ones and focus on learning.  Art develops talent, and not just cognitive skill but social competence, one of the most important for the 21st century.  Provide your people with experiences and education to strengthen them.  Provide mentors to teach them. IBM and P&G invest heavily to grow and develop their people. After all, most people quit their bosses, not their companies.  20th Century talent management focused on getting the most output from one’s human capital investment.  21st Century focuses on getting the most effective, meaningful outcomes.  Science provides tools to engage talent.  Tap into your people’s passions with opportunities to pursue those for customers.  Engaged, passionate, talent attracts more engaged passionate talent.  And, when people are absorbed in their jobs, there is little time for the usual office politics.

Temperance is moderation.   For innovation, we need to determine which habits to strengthen and which to change, personally and corporately.  Art creates balance, something the western world isn’t the best at.  A balance of work and life is critical to being whole and innovative people, to be able to gain perspective. All work and no play stifle innovation. Google’s dedicated time for innovation is a great example.  Science provides tools to manage the many competing interests in business like cost and quality, employee passions and customers needs.  At Bell Labs, there was a significant disconnect between our passions and real world customer needs. Balanced Scorecard is a useful tool to manage these competing interests.  Innovation tools for managing the ‘fuzzy front end’, the pipeline, the portfolio and the process are also critical. Whirlpool, Cisco and J&J use these tools to balance types of innovation as well as short and long-term goals.

How can you use even just one of these virtues as you pursue innovation in your organization?  Can you help your financial organization gain the courage to assess ROI differently for certain projects?  Can you apply Justice with a triple bottom line lens to your Voice of the Customer?   Can you apply Prudence to provide an energizing, freeing environment for your employees?  Which virtue(s) is most important for the project you’re currently on? Which virtue will help you improve your culture to make profit an output, but meaning an outcome?

By Deborah Mills-Scofield

About the author:

Deb Mills-Scofield helps companies create actionable, measurable, adaptable, and if implemented, profitable innovation and strategic plans.  After graduating from Brown University, helping start the Cognitive Science concentration, she went to AT&T Bell Labs and received a patent for what became one of their top revenue-generating services.  Deb was instrumental in creating AT&T’s entrance into the Internet and E-commerce marketplace, AT&T WorldNet® Services.

Deb’s love of innovation – from products/services to management – includes mentoring entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio, Brown’s Entrepreneurship Program, and seniors in Brown’s Women’s Launch Pad Program.   Because of her passion for making a difference, Deb asks her clients to match 10% of her fee to improve lives and to mentor entrepreneurs she knows through the early-stage VC firm in which she is a partner, Glengary LLC.   In her spare time, Deb watches the tides in Maine, microvolunteers at Sparked.com and with her husband, drives their kids to soccer practices and games.
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