This article challenges companies to take an honest look in the innovation mirror to determine whether they’re truly making it or perhaps faking it when it comes to bringing innovative products and services to market. Consider this a simple litmus test to self-diagnose.

It seems every few years a new buzz word emerges, is overused, and then thankfully retires to its rightful place as a normal word. Remember “best in class?” These buzz words may be precise in their description, but when every organization in every industry runs the latest buzz word up the company flag pole, waving it proudly and shouting it from the rooftops, it becomes much less powerful – almost a “me too” kind of situation. Could it be that this is the predicted demise of the word “innovation?”

With insane confidence, I hereby declare: Absolutely not! But let us agree to use the words “innovation” and “innovative” when it honestly applies. Think: brand new, original, highly useful, compelling, and cutting edge. Hint: A product line extension or a “new and improved” process, by definition, is not cutting edge.

So, how can you tell whether your company is making it or faking it? Here are five telltale signs that indicate that you may fall into the latter category.

Five Signs You Might Be Faking Innovation

  1. Your product pipeline is filled to the brim with . . . safe bets. Perhaps you’re doing some extraordinary things in the area of research, but those aren’t the things that make it onto the roadmap and into development. The key to being innovative is to deliver those innovations to market – and on a regular basis. When the mix of your product portfolio is 100% predictable and safe without a lot of fanfare or uptick from customers, then you’re probably not innovating. While it’s a wise, balanced choice to launch “new colours of product X” and “existing product Y to new market Z”, let’s not call them innovations. Ask your product developers if they are sincerely excited about what they’re working on and whether they honestly think it will be a breakthrough in the market. Companies saying yes to innovation are willing to take calculated risks, fail fast, celebrate those failures, and deliver a well-balanced portfolio with a healthy chunk of innovation.
  2. Your company says, “Innovation is everyone’s job.” If this phrase is coming out of the mouths of mid-level and executive management, I would submit to you instead that: innovation is no one’s job. Although there are a scant few companies that truly have this type of culture and environment surrounding invention, where everyone IS innovating (and we don’t need to name names here, because we all know who they are); this is not the case for the majority of us. As my friend Pamela Soin, senior manager at Kalypso, says, “Innovation needs to be run like a business.” When you’re truly innovative, someone is in charge of it. It is somebody’s job . . . perhaps a lot of somebodies. Companies focused on being innovative go to great lengths to designate a person with a title, a role, and corresponding MBOs that are focused on innovation and they are measured against it (more on metrics in a moment). This person is usually high in the organization and has a staff of people whose sole mission it is to generate, incubate, and manage fresh ideas.
  3. Your company believes innovation is free. Similar to the previous myth, you’re fooling yourself if you think innovation is free and just going to happen naturally in your organization. Innovation requires people, process, technology, a budget, and a plan. It requires investment with real money. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, but it’s a far cry from free. While it’s not a requirement for driving innovation, some organizations have separate R&D teams focused on researching new and innovative products, technologies, processes, and markets without the pressure of delivering anything to market. They are focused on creating for creation’s sake and solving problems, not on driving revenue to the bottom line. Staffing such a group requires a dedicated budget. Segmenting these inventors can help keep them from being distracted with the day-to-day delivery of products; many innovative organizations handle the balancing act in different ways. Regardless of how you structure it, it comes at a price. Assuming otherwise will leave you delivering the ordinary, not the extraordinary.
  4. Your company is more “big hat, no cattle”. I live in Texas and we have a lot of cattle ranches here. There are some cowboys who wear a big hat, talking with the voice of experience and authority but the truth is that they only have a couple of cows. You may have someone in charge of innovation who is financially incented to drive innovation, and is also working with a respectable innovation budget; tell me friend, what metrics do you use to measure innovation? Are they based on the number of new innovations that make it to market? Is it a percentage of revenue driven from innovation? How are you doing against those metrics? Are you even measuring? Is innovation part of your stated corporate strategy, as in, “We are going to increase revenue by 10 percent with net-new products to existing markets?” For something to be measurable, you have to have metrics in place and then use. The proof on whether or not you’re faking it will be in the numbers (of cows).
  5. Your company submits ideas via the employee suggestion box in the lobby. (Yes, these still exist!) There inside an isolated cardboard box right next to a request for healthier options in the cafeteria sits your next winning innovation. It’s destined for a spreadsheet stored on someone’s desktop, without any access to life-giving collaboration. Ouch! It just pains me to think about these environments. An organization that is doing well with innovation has a complete, well-communicated program to capture both the internal and external voice of the customer. Those ideas are living and breathing, but most importantly they are implemented! The people inside your company deal with your product every day and are often the best source of ideas. They know the competition, the market, and the industry. They hear customer feedback. Is your innovation team listening? Do those ideas ever see the light of day? What’s the process to get ideas to the right people? How are they vetted? Innovation needs a process and a home.

Taking Inventory and Defining Next Steps

How did you score? Chances are your organization has room to improve. Is it time to take a long, hard look at your own organization and have some frank conversations about infusing innovation into your company culture with the supporting infrastructure? The good news is it’s never too late to start – innovation can be yours!

Many organizations know they need to implement some of the above suggestions, but fear gets in the way. They think they require a big budget, that they have to consistently knock out blockbuster products in line with the Apples of the world, or they have to restructure their entire organization. While becoming innovative won’t happen overnight, it is obtainable by any company willing to commit to the initiative.

The best way to spur innovation is to obtain active executive sponsorship and direction – lip service need not apply. It has to be embedded in the organization’s DNA from the top down. Someone has to be responsible, the organization needs a structure to back it up, metrics need to be implemented to measure it, a modest budget needs to support it, and a pipeline with a free flow of ideas established.

When all of the pieces are put together, innovation is sustainable for the long term. Companies can introduce new products and services that help gain market share, maintain brand loyalty, and ultimately drive revenue to grow the company. If that’s not best in class, I don’t know what is.

More Insights

Would you like some more insights on building a true innovation portfolio? Watch this lively web discussion titled Building and Managing an Innovation Portfolio, hosted by best-selling business author Jerry Manas, featuring Chip Gliedman, Vice President and Principal Analyst, Forrester Research, Inc. and me. Gather insights to help you build and manage your innovation portfolio portfolio learned from successful companies that are leveraging social media, repeatable processes and tools to drive and sustain innovation.

By Carrie Nauyalis

About the author

Carrie Nauyalis, NPD Solution Evangelist at Planview, is passionate about establishing customer partnerships, developing market positioning, defining field enablement strategies, providing market-based feedback into Planview product development, and being an overall evangelist and thought leader for the Product Development market. Carrie began her career at Planview implementing Planview’s portfolio management solutions and training clients around the world, specializing in large, international implementations. She then worked with Planview customers as a Product Line Manager, delivering solutions and features that extended the benefits of Planview Enterprise further into the world of product development. She is an active speaker, MBA guest lecturer, blogger, and vlogger on all things Product Portfolio Management, with warm places in her heart for the topics of innovation, Stage-Gate, and agile.

Prior to Planview, Carrie held various systems engineering positions with Emerson Process. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Truman State and occasionally escapes her home and favorite city of Austin, traveling to exotic destinations like Egypt, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, and Dubai.

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