Launcing an Innovation Initiative: A Self Coaching Application

In the last edition of Next!, we discussed why leadership self-talk is important for personal development and outlined a simple procedure to follow. Below is application of self-coaching in the daunting task of launching an innovation initiative.

The senior management of a small high tech firm made an executive decision to promote company-wide innovation. It was summarily announced as not only a crash course but also a crusade.

Everyone in the organization would be involved. A designated steering group was appointed. Tangible results were to emerge within six months. Breakthroughs would be rewarded with handsome one-time bonuses.

In any event, by the time six months came around, the company had nothing to show for its efforts. As a consequence, three of its vice presidents (of marketing, human resources and strategic planning) were dismissed. As COO and Executive Vice President, the CEO stuck me with the charge of finding out what went wrong and how to fix it.

I went to my office, closed the door and began venting. There was no one in the company I could turn to for help. Indeed, they even distanced themselves from me as if I had the plague, happy to be safe and unchosen. I was on my own. Gradually I realized that if this was to be sorted out, it once again would come down to taking this challenge personally—making it part of a growth plan. So I quickly summoned my other half and got down to it.

My alter ego started off as he always did by complicating everything: "You could not have picked a harder task. Innovation is one of the most difficult objectives to accomplish. It is never easy to introduce. Its definition is slippery. Many argue as to what’s really innovative and what isn’t, and whether everyone is creative."

I responded with specifics. "How many of our managers, in your judgment, exhibit innovation? What percentage of the workforce do you estimate are creative? Do you believe employees can be trained to be creative or is such ability basically innate? Innovation is complex and not in the same league as announcing a salary increase or benefit package."

"OK," went the inner dialogue between my alter ego and me. "Let’s start off by going over what didn’t work and why. First let’s look at how we launched this initiative in the first place. Is there anything special about innovation that might affect the way the announcement was made?"

"Many are uneasy about innovation, many feel they are not creative. And I would even say that many may not know what innovation is, or be fully aware of what it could mean to the future of this company."

"Exactly! Given all these apparently legitimate concerns and hidden questions, what, in retrospect, should we have done differently about announcing the initiative?"

"I might have told them the story of what was done at 3M— their l5-minute system. Above all, I would try to strike a balance: While I don’t want innovation to appear facile or accidental, I also don’t want it to appear distant and impossible, beyond their reach, reserved for only R&D types."

"Good! So now we know that can’t just drop an announcement like a bomb without taking the chance that it will blow up in our face. OK, so that was not the best way to start and you already have to found a more balanced way. It is interesting that you mentioned R&D. A little sidebar if I might? Thomas Edison still holds the record for more patents than anyone else to this day. Of course, he may have been an inventing genius but he had others working with him who were not Edisons. So he developed for himself and all his employees idea quotas. But he also knew that some ideas had to be big and others small; so for example he gave himself six months to come up with one new major idea, and a number of smaller ones. I mention Edison because he may be telling us something. His emphasis was not on inventions, but ideas. Maybe that holds a key for the company and innovation. Maybe the process we want to get going is IG—Idea Generation. And maybe what we have to do is to encourage each employee to work on his ID—his own Idea/Innovation Diary—which is private and which is not available to anyone unless he says it is."

"You’re right. The focus is really on ideas. We can’t all be Edisons and match his record, but if we can get our people to write down what they think and what they have come up with, we will be way ahead of the game. In fact, I never told anyone this, but I keep an idea journal by my bedside. Let’s keep going. This is good stuff."

"OK, let’s go on to the next point. The initiative was presented as a crash course and a crusade. Put yourself in your employees’ place. How would you have reacted to such a statement?"

"I would have resented it. I don’t like being stampeded into anything. And I personally don’t warm to the cheerleader role. Worse of all, it sets us up for success or failure. We either make it or we fold. Besides, nothing could be further from the truth. We are actually doing quite well and all indications are that we will have solid sales for the next three to five years. So this was a future oriented activity. But, OK, I see where you are going. What you are saying is that we should have just told it like it really is-- as way of getting a leg up, insuring our future success. Right?"

"Absolutely. And maybe even to grow another business or at least another division. When the juices start to flow, you never finally know what people will come up. Now, pressing on, why a timetable of six months?"
"Now I think that was perfectly defensible. You can’t have an open-ended arrangement without limits and without closure. I would let that stand."

"OK. But suppose nothing happens within 6 months? Do you shut everything down or let it just go on? Or suppose then something surfaces by month 7, something else by month 8. What then? How will that 6 month deadline look?"

"Maybe arbitrary, even dumb .But there has to be some oversight and control. They have to know that they will be held accountable."

"But accountable for what? You did not put a dime into this. You are not providing any training. You are not giving people time off. You are not sending them to any conferences. You are not even buying them books and magazines to read. You put this pot of money aside for bonuses but if no one comes up with anything, even that money won’t be spent. I understand every executive’s need for control and outcomes, but deadlines and innovation are not compatible, unless you are willing to settle for half-baked goods prematurely delivered before their time. Instead of control, you may want to go for indirect monitoring. Schedule weekly brown bags or pizza lunches—and you pay. Mix divisions, levels, shifts. Have the supervisors just listen; tell them not to talk, just take notes. Carry forward those notes to the next level then to the next and then to senior management. Walk around, drop in on sessions unexpectedly, listen for a change."

"Well, it makes sense not to dictate creativity. It’s like pushing spaghetti. It just won’t behave the way you want it to. Well I guess you’re also questioning my picking an innovation steering group. Did we do anything right?"

"You came up with idea of an innovation initiative, and that is right as rain. But I am curious. What was your thinking here? What did you hope to accomplish with this steering committee?"

"Well, we picked people from each division. Each had an excellent record and had given some evidence of being creative. The idea was they would model for each of their divisions the behaviors to produce results."

"That makes a lot of sense. Modeling is critical. That is what Edison did. But here’s my problem. It’s either going to be company-wide or it is not. It is either going to be collective or not. Innovation often occurs with the least likely people and in the least likely ways. Besides, most selected steering groups are political. Those chosen are always the same ones picked. The winners of trips to Hawaii are always the ones who win again and again. Good for the few winners, lousy for all the rest who may get used to being losers; and there are always more of them than winners. Besides, everyone in the division will rib their representative to death and make him regret they ever were chosen in the first place. Finally it will be seen as a transparent way again of maintaining control. Make it egalitarian. Inclusive, not exclusive. Fish or cut bait."

"OK, OK! But what’s wrong with incentives? It’s been used since the beginning of time and it works."

"You’re right. Generally it works. It certainly has been effective for years in sales especially. But money and innovation have nothing to do with each other. It is a mismatch. Incentives stimulate only the familiar, not the different. Besides, such incentive-driven innovations will by generate a lot of look-alikes of what you already have. But you will not get anything different."

"Drop the idea of incentives altogether?"

"I am not sure. My instinct tells me that it is a question the employee should tackle. See what they come up with. Make it part of the creative challenge. I have to confess, I am a little old-fashioned. To me, the best incentive is the future of the company –the future of my job. Or as one worker put it to the COO: ‘Your job is to keep this company around so that I can collect my pension.’"

He stood up and held out his hand, "Well, I think our exchange has set us on a new course. I now see why with care must be taken with certain initiatives—preparing the way as you call it--thinking it through. I would like you to stay with us on this project, through all the stages for as long as it takes."

"Be happy to do so."

"And let’s get together soon and hold another seminar .OK Professor?"


I nodded smiling and said to myself, "He was right on both counts. I am a professor and it was a seminar." But after I left and was walking down the hall, I realized that he was a professor as well, and that good seminars are always shared if they are to be seminal.

In any case, in less than three months, three major employee-generated proposals for innovation passed the review committee and were on their way to implementation. Many others followed.

All were energized by the Idea/Innovation Diary which often led to small non-dramatic changes which could not be called innovative but just different ways of doing things. Above all, the employees entrusted with the future of their jobs and the company rose to the challenge and became preeminent and permanent idea- generators.

In the process what were the lessons learned? Innovation should never just be announced. Preparation is required. Examples should be given from the company itself, from the industry. Innovation should not appear facile or fortuitous but never beyond reach of the rank and file.

Speed is not relevant. Deadlines are the enemy of creativity. If have to have quotas, stress number of ideas. Urge all to develop an Idea/Innovation Diary. Deadlines and innovation are not good partners. Keep all open-ended like the process itself. But stir the pot. Schedule weekly brown-bags. Top management should not pick innovation teams. The effort is collective or it is not.

Besides, it as not a political popularity contest. Money and innovation have nothing to do with each other. It is a crass mismatch and will not stimulate difference but incremental familiarity. If you need an incentive system, let it be employee-designed. It is likely to be creative in its own right.