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Innovations about Innovating

post # 233 — November 6, 2006 — a Managing post

Recently I had the privilege of participating in a workshop in Denmark on the topic of innovation in professional services. It was organized by Stefan Lindegaard, who has been responsible before for bringing me to

Denmark and organizing conferences for me. (Thanks, Stefan, keep up the good work!)

On Stefan’s November 2 blog post, he summarises the results of our discussions on innovation. They included:

• Most firms (and individuals) have lots of innovative ideas — that’s not the shortage. Rather, the problem is lack of follow-through in diverting the time away from current production to get the innovative projects done. At the individual and organizational level, we just forgive ourselves for not investing in our future — especially if the reason we are able to give is that we “made more sausages” (ie increased current production.)

• To get more innovation going in a professional environment, you need to pull, not push. The truth is that people do things for themselves, not for the glory of the company. So, you need to find out what innovative experiments people would want to pursue for their own reasons, and figure out which ones would benefit the company most if they worked out.

• Messy, self-selected teams or networks are better at driving change and innovation than teams hand-picked by top management. Stefan points out that, in many organizations, there is a tendency to keep teams going forever. He says you need to dissolve teams of all kinds when a mission is accomplished and then form new teams or networks for new missions.

• Innovation wins through its portfolio of experiments, not by being super-geniuses at spotting in advance the one that is going to work. So, you need to stimulate a large number of experiments.

• Start out with small innovation projects that have a chance to pay off early — small scale, quick payback projects. Get the early wins. They will help build the confidence, change the culture and over time create a larger and longer-lasting impact.

Stefan reports on more lessons than these, and I’d recommend looking at other posts on his blog if innovation is your interest.

And it should be. One of the first lessons I was taught at business school was: “Most innovations fail, but companies that don’t innovate die.” The same is true for individual careers.

What have you tried in the past three months that gave you a shot at building your capabilities? What plans do you have for the next three months to try something radically different?

I really want to know. Let’s share here. What experiments are you trying? I’m not asking you to betray confidences and give away your secrets — just help others in this community, as individuals or in firms, get better at innovating.

What’s working to stimulate innovation where you work?


Sonnie said:

Hi David,

In the firm I am engaged with (theater operations), we are faced with several challenges:

(1) shrinking market due to pirated dvd’s (2) not so good movies (3) tight competition.

So far, we innovated our operations and tapped our facilities for multi use. Our auditoriums (cinema houses) are now being used (1) to show live sattelite feeds of interesting Sports events abroad (2) conferences, trainings and seminars (3) concerts and musicale (4) stage play.

This innovation have increased the productivity of our property.

posted on November 6, 2006

russell rensburg said:

hi from sunny south africa. innovation is often about re inventing as opposed to inventing. to recent examples of this could be the force behinds googles strategy to re enter print media and broading of its community through the aqusition of u tube. the latter being the current incantation of a virtual community and the print being seekers of knowledge therefore early adopters of things new. bUT BILL GATES getting into the hotel business is similar to google going into print . Could it be that MR GATES views hotels as zones to test new technology that could easily find itsef into home or business ?

posted on November 7, 2006

Paul Gladen said:

Hi David

I had the pleasure of meeting Stefan in NYC yesterday and we discussed Professional Services Innovation, a subject of great interest to me. As you note, firms that fail to innovate will die, hence the good news is that those firms that are not in their death throes are probably innovating in some way.

The challenge is for firms to make innovation a repeatable process rather than an incidental (or accidental?!) activity. That needs firm leadership to commit to it, to set goals and accountabilities, to invest and establish a process for capturing, evaluating and launching innovative ideas. They also need to develop a culture that takes risks and celebrates success and failure in equal measure. These are not simple things to achieve given the embedded operating practices and assumptions of many firms.

Most professional services firms are currently experiencing strong demand, but face shortages of quality skilled professionals, hence firms may want to focus their current innovation energies on their recruitment and retention capabilities — developing and implementing practices that enhance the employees “experience”. It’s worth noting that having an innovative business and culture is of itself good for recruitment and retention (witness Google).

Another area for focus could be the use of technology (including blogs and wikis) that enhance the ability for clients and professionals to collaborate and improve service quality and efficiency. Innovation doesn’t have to be just about new products or services.

Innovations can be big, such as the “game-changing” ideas of Chris Marston at Exemplar Law that you have written about, or small like committing to returning client phone calls within 24hrs or taking the time to thank and praise staff for their contribution. Innovations are simply ideas that are new to your organization and when implemented add value.

Paul Gladen (“Chief Innovation Officer” blog)

posted on November 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Welcome to the discussion Paul – I am enjoying your blog, too and hope we both will keep this important topic going by joining in on the discussions on each other’s sites.

posted on November 7, 2006

Danielle Keister said:

“…you need to pull, not push…People do things for themselves, not for the glory of the company.”

I believe this to be so very true. When I created my Virtual Assistant organization, we bucked much of the status quo and had many very vocal detractors (still do). In spite of that, our following is growing daily and members are going into the rest of the Virtual Assistant community singing our praises. Why? Because what we are doing is in the interests of our members. How do I know? Because I ask them every step of the way. There’s no manipulating or conning or trying to build a false cult of personality. We say, here’s what we have in mind, and here are the reasons why we think this is going to be beneficial for all of us as a group and individually, and this is what we intend to make happen.

I see that people appreciate having a clear plan set before them as well as the opportunity to use their own reasoning and logic. In our case, it’s created a very dynamic machine that works in a very grassroots sort of way and creates its own energy. And for that reason, we’ve been able to put ourselves on the map, accomplish our projects and initiatives in a very short amount of time (we’ve only been in existence since April) and momentum is only increasing. It’s a fantastic synergy.

I think the other part of this is that there really needs to be clear leadership and someone who always has their eye on the big picture and can keep things focused. Without that, you have “too many cooks spoiling the stew” and nothing ever gets done. I think often it’s in this area that a lot of innovation gets stalled.

Something I find helpful is to always have an action plan component included in the brainstorming, so that it’s not just about dreaming up innovation, but also how to make it happen.

posted on November 8, 2006

Mark Stevens said:

Ideas are words. And words are important. But if they remain “words” they are B school pabulum. Identify one powerful idea and execute on it. Then do the same with another. It’s how Walt Disney went from cartoons to theme parks.

Mark Stevens


posted on November 13, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Welcome to the conversation, Mark. I’ve followed your writing for a long time!

posted on November 13, 2006