Putting the NO in Innovation

By Karen Morris

There is an abundance of “how to” advice on the subject of innovation from letting a thousand flowers bloom to “Open Innovation” to fast prototyping to a myriad other tools and practices.

In conversation with an experienced senior executive recently on innovation strategies, he commented that it was enough if he could just stop the “innovation killers” and tackle the enablers later.

Putting aside the thought that this approach might render me, well, redundant, I saw the wisdom of it.  In much of our innovation work, we have seen that learning new practices can be easier than shedding embedded old practices.  Particularly since the more typical and widespread an assumption or behavior is, the less likely it is to attract the attention of our executive mind.  We are on autopilot.

So if we want to get innovation efforts off the ground, it’s worth taking a look at those autopilot functions that may not be as elevating as we thought.  Here are four of my personal favorite devices for stalling innovation on the runway- in no particular order:


There are two reasonable answers to the exhortation to “have a brainstorming session”: The first is “let’s not”. The second is “What do you mean by that?”  The second is probably more constructive.  If the answer is to gather people in a conference room to throw some ideas around, then go back to answer one.

Unstructured, undirected “sessions” fail for many reasons.  Who is present?  How much forethought is given to getting the right mix of people and perspectives in the room? How often is it just the same old crew?

What is in the room with you?  And I do not mean the whiteboard. Contributors need to take a good look at the assumptions, status, expertise and predetermined opinions that they bring with them. Most of us needed to be reminded to do this consciously. Otherwise, there risks being a baggage overload.  There are detectors for baggage­ overloads – “Yes, but” is a strong signal.  “We tried that in (insert date of choice)” is another.  “We would never do that here” is more storm than brain. But there are also much more subtle indicators. The conundrum is that the heaviest load, expertise, experience, confident opinions is simultaneously the reason we are there. It takes deliberate and talented facilitation to navigate this dilemma. Unfortunately, in the innovator Chris Conley’s phrase our MEEEP life (meetings, email, email, email PowerPoint) we may underestimate the challenge.

But brainstorm we will.  Be on the lookout for constructive debate as code for clash of egos and rapid consensus as code for conspiracy of silence (usually the latter follows an idea passionately advanced by the most powerful person in the room that will receive no criticism, constructive or otherwise until the water cooler conversation later.)

In fact, genuine brainstorming often occurs in places much more convivial than the conference room.

In conclusion, beware bad brainstorming. It is a significant and skilled task to facilitate an interactive collaborative session that challenges biases and produces fresh perspective. Signals of successful baggage handling:  You were surprised; you gave up a trusted belief; you saw a new connection; your follow-up action item is as daunting as it is exciting.

Idea Generation

This is a particular favorite.  Ask people for their ideas. Since ideas are the raw material of innovation, it is natural to seek them out enthusiastically.  However, the emphasis falls on raw or in the American vernacular “half-baked”.   The threshold question must be what are we requesting ideas for? What is the job to be done or problem to be solved? Too often, idea collection is a mere frog-kissing exercise- if you kiss enough of them, one might tum out to be a prince.

Ideas alone can fill a funnel (the ‘fuzzy” front end) but without the skills and mechanics for evaluation, recombination, constructive analysis, the funnel will jam up and frustration all around will ensue.  This frustration is likely to increase if ideas are linked to individual prizes.  Prize-based competitions for bright ideas work in pure open innovation. They often succeed the first time within a “closed” group such as employees. That is until 99% of the participants feel hard-done by. Then they back-fire.

Constructing rewards and recognition for ideation needs to be done keeping the larger context of a sustaining culture of idea exchange in mind. In this way, the emphasis falls more on exchange than the discrete idea. This is where the real value lies, in the post-idea build-out, greatly increasing the chance that the raw materials become transformed into commercially valuable out-puts. Creating the appropriate incentives will influence short and long term behavior.

The precursor to good ideas is solid insight. Insight comes from observing, questioning, understanding, seeing patterns and connections where others don’t. Mine for insight before you opt for the suggestion-box.

Focus Groups

I love the voice of the customer as much as the next person.

To paraphrase Peter Drucker, we are all in the same business, that of keeping and retaining customers profitably.  It does not automatically follow that customers know what they want outside of incremental improvements or perceived higher value (The famous ECHO response:  What do you want?  More of the same for less.)  The overused- because it makes the point so well­ insight of Henry Ford comes to mind. “If l had asked my customers what they wanted; they would have said a faster horse.”

This is not intended to be an indiscriminate bashing of quantitative and qualitative R&D. Nor am I as absolutist as Malcolm Gladwell’s reputed statement “Focus Groups must die”. Typically the problem derives not from the answer, but the construction of the questions or the exercise.  Focus groups without focus must die. Nonetheless, sharp scrutiny of the real return on focus groups is justified. This is increasingly true as means of generating insight using social sciences become mainstream. Focus groups will decline as the voice and, as neuroscience influences this field exponentially, the mind of the customer can more effectively be understood.

Project Teams

Even I wrestled with this one.  After all, project teams burst forth like spring flowers at the first whiff of innovation.  How else would initiatives move forward?  It’s not in the team but in the time.  People enjoy variety and contributing to special projects successfully.  This is a good thing. Relegating innovation endeavors to extra-curricular activity tacked on to the day-job is less of a good thing.  That’s not to say it is futile.  The important learning is that the secondary and ad hoc additional exercise tends to produce secondary and ad hoc additions to the core business.  This is fine if it is the intended consequence.  It is virtually certain disappointment if expectations are much more ambitious.

An important caveat is the practice of some companies of offering resources, time and the expertise of colleagues to the pursuit of projects of special interest- the 20% rule.  If there is a genuine allocation of dedicated time and/or a corporate culture so intrinsically motivated that volunteerism is in the fabric of the values and function of the organization then the “extracurricular” has actually been made central.  Organizations like this invariably outperform on innovation.  No one would underestimate the challenge of building such a culture in large legacy industry sectors nor the commensurate rewards of success. □


Karen A. Morris is a strategic advisor to national and multinational companies. She is formerly Chief Innovation Officer of Chartis Insurance, one of the world’s largest general insurance companies, Karen specializes in all aspects of innovation strategy and execution. She has over 25 years’ experience in law, management, underwriting and multinational business. This rich and diverse international background inspires her insight on product, service and business model innovation. She is a frequent speaker and writer on innovation and leadership at global forums and conferences around the world. Karen is co-founder and President of The Institute for Insurance Innovation launching in 2012.  Karen is also an adjunct professor at Fordham University in New York teaching Innovation as part of the MBA program. She has spoken on innovation at the world’s foremost executive MBA program. You may contact Karen at karen.morris2@yahoo.com.