Nov 042014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Innovation is a process that has to be supported – fed like a pet. You don’t just go out and buy a dog then forget about the poor little pooch. It has to be fed, walked and generally seen to. And you can’t wave a magic wand and say ‘let there be innovation’.


In prior articles in this series, I focused on the management culture that establishes and maintains innovation. My focus was on the interaction between the tactical visions of the CEO and senior management team and the strategic visions of the Chairman of the Board and members of the Board of Directors. However, successfully managing the mixing of these ‘analytic’ and ‘creative’ types is only the first step in the process – one that enables but does not accomplish the cultivation of an innovative culture.

The core of any innovative culture is what we called the ‘beehive’ in one of my companies. This was innovation central. Its denizens were the deep thinkers who spent most of their time thinking outside – and sometimes way outside – the box. I admit that I found wandering into the beehive. I was exhilarating at times – you never knew what they were thinking about. I also realized that many of my ‘operational’ types found the experience somewhat unsettling. After one such incursion, my COO stopped by my office. “Chief, I hope the hell you know what is going on down there. I feel like I just fell down the rabbit hole.” She had it right. This was wonderland and just as dangerous.

The experience was often akin to herding cats. The management of the inclusion within the broader culture of the company presented a challenge. I divided the challenge into two distinct areas. The first was focusing on managing the beehive – or herding the cats. The second was managing the delivery of innovative thinking into the mainstream – into the parts of the corporate culture that specialized in converting ideas into revenue. In this article, I will focus on the first and return to the second in the next article.

The first hill to climb was making sure that the tendencies of the ‘creative’ types were focused in areas that were of interest to the company. The danger was that, without such guidance, the wandering tendencies within the beehive would produce ‘innovative’ ideas that were less useful to the company. We solved this problem by organizing a regular series of briefings – show and tell session – during which the senior team reviewed the ‘wins and losses’ that had resulted from recent deliveries from the beehive. A team from the operational side of the company also came with a shopping list of new ideas that they could use. This part of the meeting focused on the experiences that were coming from client interaction as well as new initiatives from our competitors. During the last part of the meetings, the beehive got to show off their ‘newest and greatest’ ideas. Some were welcomed with a hearty ‘wow’ while others received a polite yawn.

Meetings within the beehive and the senior management team followed up these sessions. Initially we scheduled these monthly, but in short order, we ended up running them twice a month. There result was an improved relevance of the production of the beehive and a more rapid translation of innovative ideas into revenue.

The second hill to climb was the efficient management of the beehive itself. Innovation and innovative cultures are much more difficult to manage than production lines or service delivery. You never know when one of the ‘creative’ types is going to get a good idea. It is also difficult to predict how long it will take to develop that good idea into something that can be transferred to the operational side of the company. However, you do need to establish a set of metrics that can be enforced. Efficiency has to have meaning inside the beehive. The key to this challenge turned out to be selecting the right person to manage the ‘creative’ types. It had to be someone who shared in the joy of discovery, had no trouble thinking outside of the box, spoke their language and both accepted the need for and had the ability to enforce performance metrics.

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