Don’t Let Program Management Interfere With Your Innovation!

May 24, 2013 — Leave a comment

You were a struggling startup at some point.  You had a brilliant idea.  You worked with the best of the best, executed and brought it to market.  Business grew, you made it big!  A few years later, you were the leading force in the industry.  You are now the incumbent with solid profit margins.  It is time to grow and diversify the company.  It seems harder than ever.  Newer startups are beginning to threaten your future.  

This is a common cycle for many companies that have had unquestionable success in their fields.  The fall of DEC has been researched a lot.  Many other companies have been research targets in understanding failures.  The Innovator’s Dilemma covers extensive cases of such failures in innovation.  

In this post, I’m going to discuss how date-driven innovation can lead to innovation stagnation.  As a company grows and the customer base expands, program management becomes a crucial part of the process.  Engineering alone doesn’t suffice any more and the customer milestones and technical progress needs to be tracked for goals to be met.  This is absolutely essential to continue being a leader in your established business and to understand the tradeoffs between time to market and milestones.  There is innovation that must continue in your field to keep your leadership in the field.  This incremental evolution and innovation can still thrive within a program managed approach to a large extent.  

But, you want to do more than that.  You want to continue to innovate and explore both adjacent and new markets.  You want to diversify your markets.  To make this happen, there are a few things that you must do to get started.  

  • Target broad areas for innovation.  This is no easy task.  Not every company has Steve Jobs as its leader.  There are only a few leaders in this world that are truly visionary and can create the future all by themselves.  Many good leaders are highly skilled in the leading field of their business, but cannot necessarily outline a vision far outside it.  Such leaders need to operate with collective intelligence of a brilliant team.  Which brings us to the next point.

  • Hire thought leaders.  “Thought leader” is an overloaded term by itself.  However, here I imply people that have proven to be able to take on new fields and understand how things fit together well.  These people are generalists and have a knack of connecting the dots in ways most others cannot.  If new areas cannot be defined from within, it is really important that companies bring in some thought leaders to kindle new ideas.

  • Hire brilliant talent in new areas.  Hiring is hard.  Very very hard.  And hiring talent in new areas is exceptionally hard.  In your field, people want to work for you.  In a new area, you are a nobody.  Why should the best people come work for you?  Give them something to make it worthy.

Assuming you’ve successfully done the above, you have some great teams that can be put on the task of creating innovative products in new areas.  But, even after all that, it is all too hard to bring the same kind of innovation that made you who you are.  

A very common mistake that companies make is to treat disruptive innovation the same way they treat incremental innovation.  These projects get subjected to the same operational styles as any other projects.  After all, you have learnt the tricks and have “graduated” to having efficiently run programs.  Why would you not use that knowledge on your new projects?

Sadly though, this leads to a few things that are all undesirable for revolutionary innovation to be fostered.

  • You have developed an impatience for getting to market.  If you cannot see a clear path to market soon enough, you are worried about spending your money.  

  • You don’t trust the new people you hired enough – you have not seen them operate and arguably, they have not had extraordinary successes themselves (or why would they be working for you?!).  So, you are more inclined to trust your own instincts.  

  • You conflate your lack of understanding of a new field with a non-lucrative path for the company.

Essentially, you start program managing innovation.  Eventually, this leads to reducing a potentially revolutionary idea to an incremental one.  What’s worse is that you are now chasing an incremental idea in a field that is not even core to your business!  

What follows is not surprising.  You demotivate your strong people in these new areas.  It is no longer interesting to them and they no longer feel like they are about to create a future they can be proud of.  They are now forced to create a wow factor within the incremental field in a short timeframe.  Ultimately, you lose some of them.  Or many of them.  

I’m not suggesting that time bound milestones have no place in the innovation cycle.  But, it does have to be very carefully balanced.  When mixed with the right level of trust and autonomy, it can be valuable.  Just as you knew exactly when to place markers in your own field (remember the early days?), you need to trust the strong talent you hired to do this in the first place.  

This is what sets the best companies apart.  New ideas need periods of incubation without the constraints of granular program management.  There is just no such thing as date-driven innovation from the beginning!  When the people are motivated, innovation can happen at the fastest pace possible.  So, about the only thing the leader must focus on is motivating the people.  I already wrote about motivating your best employees before.  

But, if you know how to hire the best, have figured out how to keep them motivated and really invest in innovation, you are on your way to making it work!

 

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