Innovating internally? Better prioritize your people

Drawing it up: When it comes to internal innovation, if you don't have a solid plan, you should plan to fail.
By STEVEN BLUE //

The reason innovations fail is not because of technology. It’s never about the technology.

Innovations fail because of people. The people who might employ a new technology may not be sold on it. Or they might be afraid of it. Or they might feel threatened by it.

Steven Blue: Innovative thinking.

Welcome to the dark side of innovation. The biggest threat to a new innovation your company is trying to develop will be your own people.

This threat comes in one of several forms, and sometimes in all of them. First, your people may want to cling to the old tried-and-true. As false as it is, tried-and-true gives people comfort. Or they may not want to cannibalize an existing product with a newer technology. Often, your people will feel threatened by a new innovation because they think it will outdate their skills – and therefore their jobs.

When you are introducing innovation into your company, you have to neutralize these threats. Here are seven ways to introduce innovation into your company:

1. Make innovation a top priority. Don’t let it be an activity that people should pay attention to “after they get the real work done.” Innovation is the real work.

2. Put your money where your mouth is. Promote people who champion your innovation efforts. Incentivize people who support the effort. Make innovation a key component of performance evaluations. If people aren’t supporting the effort, make that a reason for possible termination. Create the time and physical space for people to gather and brainstorm ideas. Set key goals for the number of ideas to be generated. Support the best ideas with funding.

3. Be prepared to coach people who are against the effort. Be ready to make organizational changes. That means moving people out of the organization or down in the organization if you feel they threaten the effort. Watch out especially for the “not invented here” syndrome.

4. Remember the 3 C’s of effective communications: Clear, compelling and convincing. Be very clear in communicating your expectations. Paint a compelling picture of what happens to the company if you don’t innovate (read: bad things) and all the good things that will happen when the innovation efforts are successful. And be convincing as to why innovation is so important. You have to paint both sides of the “why are we doing this?” picture. I like to use what I call the “El Dorado/El Chapo Model.” If we innovate, we are on the road to El Dorado; if we don’t, we are on the road to El Chapo.

(You don’t have to look very far to find examples of companies that failed to innovate. Just look at the case of Kodak: They knew long before it happened that digital was on the way in and print was on the way out. Kodak didn’t fail because they didn’t know how to innovate to meet that threat; they failed because they didn’t want to. And you can use a great example of an old-line company that innovated its way out of death’s door: Encyclopedia Britannica also saw the digital revolution coming. But unlike Kodak they chose to innovate by going entirely digital. Now Britannica’s digital sales are better than their print sales ever were. And where are their print sales? Gone. So would the company be, if it hadn’t innovated.)

5. Hire or contract the resources needed to innovate. Remember, your own people won’t know what they don’t know. Fresh, new ideas from outside the organization will be needed.

6. Make the commitment to your people that they will be trained in the new innovations. Don’t let them think your plan is “in with the new and out with the old,” otherwise they are sure to be against it.

7. Regularly review progress in the innovation efforts. This needs to be done by the CEO so the organization knows this is a serious effort. Stay very close to the effort so you will know when it starts to break down. And when it does – not if, because it will from time to time – take action fast.

Always remember innovation never fails because of technology. It fails because of people who aren’t convinced it’s necessary. People who are threatened by it. People who long for yesterday instead of tomorrow. Follow these seven steps and ensure your company’s innovations don’t fall flat.

Blue is the president & CEO of Minnesota-based Miller Ingenuity, a frequent contributor to CNN, CNBC and Fox News, and the author of “Burnarounds: Unlocking the Double Digit Profit Code” and the new book “American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right.” Learn more at www.SteveBlueCEO.com.