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As the cofounder of InnovationNetwork, the visionary behind the annual Innovation Convergence conference and tireless author and supporter of organizational innovation, Joyce Wycoff is in a unique position to comment on its current state and future possibilities. This first Innovation Thought Leader interview contains some great insights from this leading thinker in the world of innovation.

Joyce Wycoff is the co-founder of the InnovationNetwork and author of several books on innovation and creativity. Dubbed the “epicenter of innovation” by Doug Hall, she has spent 13 years synthesizing and articulating the principles and practices of innovation. She is also the chief force behind the Innovation Convergence, the annual conference for innovation practitioners which recently held its eleven annual gathering. In this interview with InnovationTools founder Chuck Frey, Joyce reflects on the present state of organizational innovation and the challenges it faces in the future.

Frey: In your opinion, what are the biggest innovation-related challenges that organizations face today?

Wycoff: Making space for innovation.  In a conversation today with a senior manager trying to stimulate innovation in his organization, we talked about creating a project bounty — kill a stalled, low-priority project and get seed funding for something new. Also, maintaining a consistent message from leadership. There’s a tendency to think, “You say innovation is important today … but will it be your focus tomorrow? Maybe I should just wait to see if it passes.”

Frey: Why is it so hard for companies to develop and maintain effective innovation processes?

Wycoff: Related to question 1. In our over-busy organizations, there’s no room for innovation. We need to clean out the project closets to make room for new thinking. Most organizations are still trying to figure out how to do innovation the simplest way possible. Quality didn’t happen over night; safety doesn’t happen without a clear, consistent message and a focus on embedding it throughout the organization. Innovation needs the same focus and commitment.

Frey: What is the leader’s role in innovation? What percentage of leaders do you think truly understand what this role calls them to do?

Wycoff: I wouldn’t hazard a guess on a percentage but would say it’s significantly less than 100%. Leaders need to communicate a clear vision and strategy and they need to make innovation part of the expectations of every employee. They need to model the mindset of “there’s always a better way,” and make failures and mistakes learning opportunities. They also need to protect the operations from the quarterly-stock-price mindset. Wall Street may be a necessary part of our economic environment but it can become a barrier to innovation if leadership lets it whiplash priorities and initiatives.

Frey: A study by the Doblin Group says that only 4% of all innovation initiatives are deemed successful by the companies that have implemented them. Why do you think this percentage is so incredibly low? What can we do about it?

Wycoff: There are so many answers to this, it’s hard to know where to begin. Lack of focus, too many projects chasing too little time and too few resources, fuzzy vision and strategies that don’t give people clear guidance, lack of deep understanding of customer needs and wants, substituting line extensions for innovation, 15 years of layoffs breaking trust with and among employees, greedy CEOs, employees who would rather blame management than take responsibility, lack of training and clear processes about how to do innovation, cultures that stifle creativity and motivation, budgets and policies that make buying a pencil a corporate event, the willingness to pay billions for an acquisition while not allowing a few thousand for seed funding for new ideas. Inability or unwillingness to set clear, guiding criteria for evaluating new ideas. Not enough creativity devoted to ways of testing new ideas before betting the farm. Too many meetings; too little time to tinker. I could go on but it’s getting depressing.

Frey: In your “state of innovation” presentation at the Innovation Convergence 2005 conference, you touched on the role of trusted intermediaries to help drive organizational innovation. Is this a growing trend? Why?

Wycoff: This is still a seedling but I expect it to become a much bigger trend as organizations discover the incredible value of inter-organizational collaboration.

Frey: You also mentioned in your “state of innovation” presentation that big opportunities exist beyond product and service innovation. Where should we be looking, and what sorts of opportunities may await us there?

Wycoff: Larry Keeley developed the ten types of innovation available from his website doblin.com. We simplified it into the InnovationWheel which encourages people to keep their eyes on their products and services but to also open innovation to their business models, the customer experience, internal processes and their image and brand. Larry’s research shows that the greatest value often comes from these areas around the product and service.

Frey: What else should innovation managers and leaders focus on during the next 2-3 years, to increase their odds of success?

Wycoff: The standards are still critical: developing a challenge that energizes people and their thinking; helping people understand who the customers are and how they think, helping people understand how to use basic thinking tools of divergence and convergence, helping people get outside their normal environments so they see new things they can bring back to their problems and opportunities, eliminating barriers to collaboration and completion and helping people learn from projects, successful and unsuccessful. In a nutshell, we need to be helping people learn how to create value for customers.

Frey: Are there any other innovation trends or issues that you’d like to comment on?

Wycoff: We have spent a lot of time talking about types of innovation, incremental or radical, improvement or breakthrough, as if incremental innovation weren’t important. I’d like to see a world where every person in an organization gradually got smarter about how to increase customer value and knew how to turn ideas into reality. I also worry about the increasing trend toward innovation software solutions. I love technology and anything that makes life easier… but innovation is a people sport. Ideas are born in people, judged by people, implemented by people. Software can be helpful but it will never do innovation and too often it will sit unused in a digital corner because the “system around the system,” meaning the people system, was never adequately developed.

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