Innovation: Are You Talking the Walk or Walking the Talk?

These days, it’s impossible to read the business news without finding articles referring to the world of innovation in one way or another. Companies proclaim that they are going to grow faster than their competitors because they are going to innovate better products. Self-proclaimed “innovation experts” who in the past sold marketing, benchmarking and six sigma as the “one and only way to heaven” and who have only recently jumped on the moving innovation train, now start to bombard audiences with shallow articles and low value talks full of innovation buzzwords, from “out-of-the-box” over “disruptive” and “cutting-edge” to “breakthrough”. Public sector agencies organize conferences and events where the concept of the Creative Economy is —rightfully— celebrated without that the success lessons of other countries are effectively adopted and translated into meaningful policies. Yes, there’s a lot of talk about creativity and innovation. But how about the doing side of innovation?


In a brand new global innovation survey conducted by the firm Information Architected Inc., 17 out of 20 managers agree that innovation management is absolutely critical to the business success of their firm. But at the same time, 51% of the companies participating in the survey do not have any formalized innovation management practice. Asked what is the biggest impediment to managing innovation, half of the participating managers cite a lack of a systematic innovation process, followed by a lack of innovation resources, leadership and adequate funding. Moreover, seven out of ten respondents state that the challenging economic conditions following the global economic downturn have raised the need for actively managing innovation; but only 24% of firms have done anything specifically to manage innovation in the last two years.

So how about your company? Do you still only talk about how important innovation is for your business and how much you are going to innovate soon? Or do you already walk your talk and do what it takes to produce tangible innovation results? In order to find out how your company is doing, have your management team openly and honestly discuss on the following 20 questions that help you to track the degree of your innovation efforts:

  1. How do we define innovation? How do we define creativity?
  2. What are our innovation goals in the next 3-5 years?
  3. How do we measure our innovation activities? Do we have measures that capture our innovation input, innovation process and innovation output? How effective is each of these measures to realize our strategic objectives and innovation goals?
  4. Who is in charge of innovation in our organization? At what management level have we positioned this responsibility for innovation?
  5. What is our current innovation process? How effective is it? How do we know it is effective — and that we are not just patting ourselves on our own backs?
  6. What are our Top 5-10 barriers to innovation? How might we overcome these barriers?
  7. What are factors that limit employee motivation to innovate?
  8. Do we have a systematic process to generate and track new ideas?
  9. How often do we generate new ideas?
  10. How well do we manage the ideas that we generate? Why? How could we manage them better?
  11. How often do we take action on meaningful ideas?
  12. Do we have an innovation pipeline? How many ideas are in our innovation pipeline? How often do we review the innovation pipeline? What is the degree of integration of meaningful ideas/solutions in the innovation pipeline with existing products and solutions?
  13. What sources do we use for new ideas? Only internal sources? To what extend do we involve external parties (such as our customers, distributors, vendors, suppliers or idea companies/innovation consultancies) in our idea generation?
  14. How do we currently reward innovation? What might be a better way to reward innovation?
  15. What is our traditional innovation focus? What are other innovation types that we have neglected so far and should explore?
  16. How can we better play on the full spectrum of modern innovation types? Do we already know how to integrate the different types to unlock more meaning and value for our customers — and greater leverage for our company?
  17. How many innovation initiatives have we successfully activated during the past 5 years?
  18. Looking at the portfolio of innovation initiatives that we successfully activated in the past 5 years, what is the percentage of successful projects for each of the following categories: Saving pigs — Incremental improvements — Product extensions — Radical innovations?
  19. To what extend do we actively protect and manage our Intellectual Property (IP)?
  20. How much are we spending on innovation per year (in % of our total revenues)? What’s the break-up into different categories (such as traditional R&D, HR Development/ Training, Consulting, Innovation and Ideation Projects, Idea Development Budgets, Innovation Management Systems, etc.)? How effective is your current innovation spending? What would be more effective ways to boost your return on innovation spending?

Conclusion: IBM, one of global innovation leaders, has released a number of hilarious advertisement spots that contrast the corporate hype on innovation with the corporate reality (to view the videos, go to YouTube and type ‘IBM’ and ‘innovation’ into the search field). In the ironical spots, you see business people doing the innovation talk; managers creating special rooms where they intend their employees to innovate some time in future; firms hiring bozos as “innovation trainers” or “innovation experts” who master all the industry jargon and buzzwords but are completely clueless on how to really do innovation; and so on. All spots culminate in a funny ending that highlights the ridiculousness of the firm’s “innovation efforts” and IBM’s main message: “Stop talking. Start doing.” I have nothing more to add.


This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on November 19 2009.
© Dr. Detlef Reis 2009.

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