This week IM caught up with Ric Merrifield – consultant, author and business scientist at Microsoft, to get his views on the most important lessons for innovation management practitioners to learn and the direction of the profession as a whole. Ric had some valuable advice to share.

What is innovation management to you?

Innovation management is something that should happen at all levels of an organization. Any time a person in an organization evaluates responding to a problem or an opportunity, that evaluation should include whether innovation is the best response to that problem or opportunity. As you do that, you develop a portfolio of responses, and a sub-set of those is your portfolio of innovation. There should be innovation discussions all the way from the most strategic to the most tactical, and managing the costs, risks, expectations, and results can be a big job.  Does this mean people should have innovation at every corner of their organizations? That’s unlikely. An organization should have a pretty clear sense of where innovation will, and won’t add the kind of value they need.

What are the most important lessons for an innovation manager to learn?

a) If you don’t make innovation part of your daily conversation, it cannot become a successful part of their management style. It’s a little bit like continuous improvement that way. People don’t ever list continuous improvement on their daily task list – it needs to be a part of every task. Similarly with innovation, you need to make it part of your daily conversation.

b) A lot of people fail to define innovation. That’s key. My definition is that innovation is on the extreme end of the change spectrum. Starting out small with a minor tuning change, getting progressively bigger to something like a “project” where, a bit like a home remodel, you can recognize what was there before, but it’s also noticeably different. Innovation is when you change something so drastically it doesn’t resemble what was there before. Checking in for a flight on your laptop in a hotel room doesn’t resemble the experience of going to the counter and talking with an airline employee. You don’t have to agree with my definition, but you need a definition.

c) Somewhat related to the previous point, some people confuse creativity with innovation. Creativity is like lightning striking – you never know where it will happen next. Innovation, when done right, is something that comes as a result of a rigorous and disciplined analysis of how to respond to problems and opportunities.

Do you think innovation management as a profession is headed in the right direction?

Not yet. People still throw the phrase around too carelessly. There needs to be more standards and methods that people can use and compare themselves with others. That’s one of the reasons I structured my book Rethink the way that I did, clear methods with lots of different industry examples so that everyone can relate to it, and act on it.

What’s your next big challenge?

I have some pretty specific thoughts on increasing the financial literacy of children, and as the parent of a nine year-old, that’s a priority.  I also have some ideas on how to drive costs out of the US healthcare world.  Stay tuned.

About Ric Merrifield

Ric Merrifield spent nearly 15 years in various consulting roles helping organizations define and achieve their goals. Since joining Microsoft, Merrifield has spent more than 10,000 hours as Microsoft’s business scientist and has filed twelve patent applications all with the goal of helping companies rethink their operating models and get out of the “how” trap described in the pages of his book Rethink.

Merrifield coauthored “The Next Revolution in Productivity,” a June 2008 Harvard Business Review article focused on case studies that highlight needs of the organization and the opportunity to rethink business operating models before making major technology changes. Merrifield’s second book, Surviving a Business Earthquake, about disruptive business models, released in December, 2010. Merrifield is an alumnus of Lakeside School in Seattle and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.