Cleveland was built on the southern shore of Lake Erie. You can see the water from many points around the region. Getting to it, however, can be surprisingly tricky. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, when Cleveland was growing, industry and highways took precedence; lake access for people was at best an afterthought. As a result, Cleveland is left with a curious challenge. Much of the industry is gone, but the city can’t easily capitalize in other ways on its proximity to one of the largest freshwater bodies in the world. It’s right there, but many obstacles stand in the way.
Innovation can be like that. For every company we talk to that has no ideas whatsoever, we hear from two or more with ideas, plans, and goals.—But, they can’t seem to get started, or they got started and the project stalled. Or, they’ve maintained momentum but have belatedly realized that they skipped some important steps and will soon come to a halt if they can’t adapt on the fly. The idea often proves to be the easiest part. Getting that idea to market is the challenge.
Nottingham Spirk recently worked with a client that was virtually choking on ideas. They’d identified six categories for new products, but were at a loss as to how to narrow the list to a more manageable number. Their team and ours spent two full days deeply immersed in every scrap of data they’d collected, and identifying everything they had not considered, using human-centered and exploratory design processes. The work was arduous but energizing, and at the end the choices were almost shockingly clear.
This company was able to see its dilemma and, even more importantly, seek new perspectives. That’s not always the case. Here are some of the common and surmountable impediments to innovation that we frequently see and help our client partners overcome.
Too Many Ideas
The client described above is staffed with smart, dedicated people with an enviable record of bringing products to market. But they were so deeply immersed in their work that they lacked the capacity to truly step outside it. Our work with them focused on that. In the workshop, the participants shelved their expertise and stepped back, then stepped back again, questioning every assumption. We challenged every belief about the spaces in which they did or did not see potential, as well as their own processes for shepherding ideas.
They needed outsiders who would first spend the time to understand their market and their place in it, and then ask “why” with the persistence of a curious child. Some of the answers to their questions required research with fresh eyes, but others just needed to be excavated from beneath layers of knowledge and habit.
Too Many Siloes
The podcast “You Are Not So Smart” recently interviewed science historian James Burke, who posited: “Innovation took place in the spaces between disciplines, when people outside of intellectual and professional silos, unrestrained by categorical and linear views, synthesized the work of people still trapped in those institutions, who, because of those institutions, had no idea what each other was up to.” Burke was referring to history, but the lesson applies to organizations that assign people roles in departments separated by literal or figurative walls.
We understand that corporate structures can improve efficiency and facilitate communication. But not all walls are load-bearing, and you need to be open to tearing some down from time to time, to open up new spaces. Nottingham Spirk’s Vertical InnovationTM process helps push through these figurative walls and get all stakeholders moving in the same direction.
Too Many Pivots
Open offices. Design thinking. Stage-gate processes. Any one of these trends, and the many others that have come and gone over the years, could help some organizations improve their capacities to innovate. But none of them will help all organizations.
The most common mistake companies make with these processes is layering them over a structure and culture for which they aren’t a good fit.
If there were shortcuts to fostering a culture in which innovation flourishes, we’d happily share them. Culture isn’t what you say, or even what you believe, it’s what you do—everything you do, from whom you hire, how you manage them and where they work. Any corporate culture can become more open to collaboration, risk-taking and the other essential elements of innovation. But that shift must start with an honest and thorough assessment of where the organization is, where it wants to be and what that journey will entail.
Too Much Focus on Core, Profits, or ROI
This is, by far, the greatest innovation killer. We believe that, like individuals investing their money, businesses must manage their innovation portfolios, as Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff put it in a 2012 piece for the Harvard Business Review
“Firms pursue innovation at three levels of ambition: enhancements to core offerings, pursuit of adjacent opportunities, and ventures into transformational territory,” they wrote. “Analysis of innovation investments and returns reveals two striking findings. Firms that outperform their peers tend to allocate their investments in a certain ratio: 70% to safe bets in the core, 20% to less sure things in adjacent spaces, and 10% to high-risk transformational initiatives. As it happens, an inverse ratio applies to returns on innovation.”
We see the aversion to risk on the individual level as well. When associates are evaluated and compensated solely or primarily on the performance of an existing product line, they have little incentive to look beyond it. Even bonuses may not shift their focus, at least not for very long. Companies that won’t take risks can’t expect their employees to.
At Nottingham Spirk, we’ve flipped the mindset from ROI as Return on Investment to Return on InnovationTM Considering the impact to your business if you don’t innovate can help you understand the importance of investing in it. Over the past 46 years, we’ve generated over $50BIL in revenue for our client partners using this model.
There’s Always a Way
Slowly, but surely, Cleveland has been finding ways to make better use of its lakefront land. In 2017, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board suggested offering the city’s small lakefront airport to Amazon for its new headquarters, and a “huge, lush park.” The city’s pitch to Amazon remains a secret, and decommissioning the airport would face some resistance. But we admire the audacity of the idea. There’s always a way to reach the water.
To learn more about how Nottingham Spirk can help your corporate innovation team get “unstuck,” contact Nottingham Spirk at firstname.lastname@example.org or (216) 707-3690.
Sandy Croucher is a Client Relationship Manager and Marketing Lead at Nottingham Spirk, the business innovation firm in Cleveland, Ohio with over 46 years of experience. InnoLead regularly publishes Thought Leadership pieces written by our Strategic Partner firms.