Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Leadership and Innovation Wake-Up Call

…and what can non-leaders do about it?

It’s best to answer that with a little story.  But first, let me set the stage:

Last week, the ITIF published a report that ranked the US sixth in innovation and last in innovation growth, versus 39 other countries.  (Read the full report here.)  By contrast, Singapore shows considerable leadership: First place overall and second in growth.  This isn’t a surprise to those who’ve read John Kao’s book, Innovation Nation:

“… Singapore has sprinted ahead of far larger countries that lack the island nation’s disciplined commitment to innovation leadership.”

Business leaders around the world should watch these trends very closely.  As it happens, you could already see similar results in Google Trends and Google Insights for Search.

Go to Google Trends and query innovation, and you get the following country rankings:

GoogleTrends

Singapore is right there, at the top of the list again.

If you enter the same query in Google Insights for Search (which uses a different technique), you get these rankings:

GoogleInsights

Singapore.  Again.  And the US is nowhere to be found.  (I’m fascinated by the #1 to #3 spots on this one, but that’s a separate discussion.)  Remember, the Google numbers aren’t broad policy and economic indicators led by industry leaders and politicians.  These are a measure of the number of ordinary people taking the lead and going out on the web to learn about innovation.

What fascinates me is that this reflects how easy it can be for a mature economy (and a mature company) to lose sight of the innovation leadership that got it where it is today.  Yes, the US is still innovating.  But others are catching up.

Most of us can’t do much to directly influence our country’s leaders.  However, for those who work in mature companies facing similar challenges, there are still things we can do to show leadership and drive innovation, even during a recession.

So let me tell you that story.  It’s a true story, about two teams, in the same company, with similar products.  They were in an industry with heavy government regulation and rigorous processes.

One team followed the processes that were in place.  They wrote all the required documentation, in the format that they always used.  They performed all their testing manually, just as they had always done.  And as the product grew, everything got more and more onerous and the team’s ability to deliver new innovations steadily slowed.

The other team showed true leadership.  They took a step back and looked at the reasons why they were doing what they did.  What were the processes trying to achieve?  What was the documentation intended to show?  What needed to be accomplished in the test cycles?  They weren’t trying to stop following processes, writing documents, or doing testing.  They were trying to find better ways to meet these goals.  They were innovating.

As a result of this leadership and initiative, the second team changed the way they worked.  They tailored their processes to reduce administration and increase the time spent on productive work.  They found new ways to meet the same documentation goals: By automating some documents to provide requirements traceability, and by simplifying other documents to reduce document overhead and increase the value of the documents’ content.  And they automated their tests, so that they could execute a complete test cycle in a few hours, rather than taking a few weeks.

And it wasn’t the team’s official leadership that drove these changes.  These changes were embraced and led by the entire team.

And once they had finished innovating in their processes, they began innovating in their product.  Their capabilities grew, they signed more deals, their customers were happier.  All the while, the first team got slower and slower -- their staff were reassigned and new development eventually stalled.

All this will sound very familiar to those who do a Keep-Stop-Start style of performance feedback, and to those who recall the “Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create” tool from W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s book, Blue Ocean Strategy.

  • Understand what it really is that you’re trying to achieve.
  • Do more of the things that directly support that.
  • Do less of the things that don’t.

Governments may put policies or incentives in place, but we’re the ones who innovate, and it’s our choice whether or not to take a leadership role.  Whether we’re scientists, entrepreneurs, or employees in a large company, we control whether we continue to do things the same way we’ve always done, or if we look for better ways.

Some may complain about the lack of leadership on innovation from our governments.  Government policies and incentives certainly help.  But the true leaders are those who, even when faced with onerous processes and mature products, find new ways to do things better.

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