Innovation Inside an Organization Requires Balancing Priorities

It always seems simpler to be able to start with a blank slate, and even better to be given just one project so that you can focus, but the reality is that innovation inside an organization requires balancing priorities.

Innovation Inside an Organization Requires Balancing Priorities

Q: Currently, I am the only person in my 700+ person non-profit organization working solely on innovation (and I’m just a part of an existing department, not my own).

A: If you are part of a 700 person organization there are many others working on innovation — whether in internal process to better meet customer needs, new services, or new products. It may not seem like it but even the Post Office and the California Department of Motor Vehicles have people who are making improvements and innovation.

Q: My dream is to one day have multiple people/teams working on large innovative projects full-time, ranging anywhere to front-facing products to internal tools that help solve problems for our staff.

You need to identify and connect with other internal change agents / intrapreneurs / innovators. Look for where improvements have been made in your products, services, or internal processes and figure out who really made them happen (this may or may not be who was “in charge” or claims credit). One acid test is to talk to them and understand what triggered their vision of the innovation, what problems they had to overcome, what they tried that did not work, how they took advantage of the strengths of the culture, and what they had to do to overcome organizational inertia (sometimes called “organizational immune system”).

Q: So far, in my role, we have tried  keeping our ears open for innovative projects in other departments and seeing if we could offer some consultation. This has proven fairly fruitless, since these colleagues didn’t exactly ask for our help (they weren’t early adopters), we weren’t the owners of the projects (they didn’t have to do/try anything we recommended), and they were already knee-deep into launching their projects (there wasn’t really the question of “should we do this?”).

Seek to learn from them and build on their success. Your default assumption seems to be you are “smarter” than they are about innovation. In the context of a 700 person organization that’s unlikely and you would be better served to seek first to understand before you attempt to teach/preach. Two models to consider:

  • appreciative inquiry — understand what’s working well in the current setup you don’t want to break if you suggest innovations; remember that traditions are solutions to problems the organization has forgotten it had
  • amplify positive deviance — identify folks and teams that are doing a good job of innovation now and help spread what they have to other groups that may benefit. It’s much easier to be the evangelist if you are not the inventor, and vice versa.

Q: I have also tried to innovate new features on an existing internal product that I own.  But there hasn’t been much traction as far as “building a critical mass of success” goes because:

  1. it is an existing product (it’s not starting from the ground up),
  2. the feature development has been slow, and
  3. I own it.

Welcome to the practical and messy realities of organizational change and innovation. Starting with a blank sheet of paper simply exacerbates your adoption problem. Improving an existing product with real customers means you have a built in stakeholder set you can have conversations with instead of interviewing hypothetical customers.

Lonely Traveler by JD Hancock, its all about balancing prioritiesQ: I’m thinking a change of direction is in store, in particular from what I have been reading I think that I need to build and scale a product/project/initiative from the ground up to take innovation to where I want it to go for my organization. Should I request a project like this from my supervisor, and clear away all of my projects to take this on?

No. Keep your eyes and ears open for shortcomings you can address in your existing product, document them after conversations with customers and shepherd them through the development and release process, including both an internal post-project assessment (postmortem / after action / retrospective) and active review with customers on how they are using the new capabilities. Do this to build credibility in your organization. Do not run around telling everyone you know “I just read this great book and everything we are doing is wrong and I should be put in charge of a new product.”

Q: Should I clear away all of my other projects to focus on building new features for the existing internal product that I own?

No. You will always have divided attention and conflicting priorities. Learn how to make progress on multiple fronts at once. Every successful product or change project requires the ability to persevere through a welter of conflicting needs, priorities, requirements and demands on your time. You can clear you plate today but if you are genuinely trying to innovate you will be back in the swamp in a few weeks, you might as well focus instead on managing conflicting demands on your time, balancing priorities, and learning how to persevere. Hoping for a clean slate is a mistake.

Q: I’ve also been thinking that I really need to hone in on one innovative project, rather than try to manage, test, strategize, etc. about multiple things – would you also recommend that clearing my plate for one thing is essential for building a “critical mass of success of innovation” in an organization?

I like Bob Bemer‘s formulation:

  • Do Something. You know you have to. Why delay?
  • Do Something Small. That gets you started and makes something to build on.
  • Do Something Small, but Useful. Be sure it’s pertinent and helps to solve the problem.
  • Do Something Small, but Useful Now.

My answers may not be what you want to hear but I can assure you they are based on the bitter fruit of experience working as a successful change agent in large firms for the better part of two decades.

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Photo Credit: JD Hancock “Lonely Traveler

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