The Innovation Flywheel

Innovation is not a quick win, and if you’ve read Jim Collins, you know what’s coming. Innovation is a discipline that is hard to establish across large organizations, because many stubborn obstacles stand in the way – many of those obstacles simply don’t exist at small startups, which is why they can pounce on new ideas with tremendous pace and energy.

Pushing a flywheel is hard – the first turn feels like an impossibility. But slowly, turn after turn, momentum gathers, and the wheel starts to store up rotational energy. Eventually the wheel is spinning so hard through it’s own momentum, that it’s resistant to changes in rotational speed. Getting from that first push, to watching the machine run on its own energy, is exactly what we see when large organizations try to embed a culture and discipline of innovation.

The problem most companies face, is simply sticking to the task – they don’t persist in pushing the flywheel, but rather break momentum, change direction, switch tools, try again. Most innovation strategies aren’t bad – sticking to a good enough one is better than stopping and searching for a silver bullet.

To build the momentum necessary, some of the obstacles in the way must be worked on in parallel, for example:

  • A culture of innovation takes time, for most organizations this means building advocates, individuals who distribute seeds of innovation throughout the business, shaping the way people interact and view innovation at the company (usually in a different way to the past).
  • A process which handles diverse input. When you ask for input, you’ll get ideas you want for sure, but also ideas you don’t want – how you handle those is critical to building momentum. Sometimes you need to seize opportunities as they arise, do you have a fast track process for those cases? This is not easy when companies prefer to standardize and regulate processes.
  • A discipline of prototyping. Ideas are rarely fully formed, they are only fragments of a solution. Rapid prototyping enables you to make faster decisions, giving ideas room to breathe before they are over-examined, or unfairly killed off. Plus you gain tremendous learning, which fuels more innovation.
  • Get managers on board. Middle-management is a large obstacle to getting things done – their interests typically don’t align with the new innovation strategy. Getting them on side requires time, education, and small wins that mean something to their daily work. Watch out, not doing it means serious momentum bashing.
  • Collect small-wins. You’ll want to implement cost saving and efficiency ideas right from day one, those successes can be filtered back into the report card for your innovation targets. Some companies make the mistake of looking for big wins too early. Small wins build momentum quickly, especially when you get lots of them.
  • Create transparency. Let’s face it, employees think you don’t care, and you’re not serious about this idea program. They’ve probably seen a similar program 18 months before. Transparency is critical to winning over the skeptics. Transparency in everything, from how you will review ideas, how you’ll progress them when selected, and exactly what happened to those that made it. Celebrate the wins, make it about the people involved. But also celebrate the process – recognize people who simply take part.
  • Embrace failure. Ah! This one hurts. Nobody wants failure … or do they? Some folks actually seek it out, because it’s another step closer to getting it right. Show me one more time why that broke again? Taking that approach, coupled with the transparency and prototyping above, and you have a potent combination for innovation. This is the one that brings in the tinkerers, the experimenters, the entrepreneurs. Get them on side, and now you’re talking.

You may have even more tricky obstacles – including doing all this on a tight budget – but we can be sure of one thing: pushing slowly on the flywheel, day by day, is better than flirting with new tools, new strategies, new roles. Keep pushing!

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Published by

Tim Woods

Product manager (formerly software engineer and marketing manager) with 17 years of experience in the field of innovation management. South Coast of England.

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