Using only three words, how would you describe your company?
Better yet, what three words would your customers use to describe your company?
These three words capture your company’s identity. They answer, “who we are” and “what business we’re in.” They capture a shared understanding of where customers allow you to play and how you take action to win.
Everything consistent with this identity is normal, safe, and comfortable.
Everything inconsistent with this identity is weird, risky, and scary.
Your identity is killing innovation.
Innovation is something new that creates value.
Identity is carefully constructed, enduring, and fiercely protected and reinforced.
When innovation and identity conflict, innovation usually loses.
Whether the innovation is incremental, adjacent, or radical doesn’t matter. If it conflicts with the company’s identity, it will join the 99.9% of innovations that are canceled before they ever launch.
Your identity can supercharge innovation.
When innovation and identity guide and reinforce each other, it doesn’t matter if the innovation is incremental, adjacent, or radical. It can win.
Identity-based Innovation changes your perspective.
We typically think about innovation as falling into three types based on the scope of change to the business model:
Incremental innovations that make existing offerings better, faster, and cheaper for existing customers and use our existing business model
Adjacent innovations are new offerings in new categories, appeal to new customers, require new processes and activities to create or use new revenue models
Radical innovations that change everything – offerings, customers, processes and activities, and revenue models
These types make sense IF we’re perfectly logical and rational beings capable of dispassionately evaluating data and making decisions. SPOILER ALERT: We’re not. We decide with our hearts (emotions, values, fears, and desires) and justify those decisions with our heads (logic and data).
So, why not use an innovation-typing scheme that reflects our humanity and reality?
Identity-enhancing innovations reinforce and strengthen people’s comfort and certainty in who they are and what they do relative to the organization. “Organizational members all ‘know’ what actions are acceptable based on a shared understanding of what the organization represents, and this knowledge becomes codified u a set of heuristics about which innovative activities should be pursued and which should be dismissed.”
Identity-stretching innovations enable and stretch people’s understanding of who they are and what they do in an additive, not threatening, way to their current identities.
Identity-challenging innovations are threats and tend to occur in one of two contexts:
Extreme technological change that “results in the obsolescence of a product market or the convergence of multiple product markets.” (challenges “who we are”)
Competitors or new entrants that launch new offerings or change the basis of competition (challenges “what we do”)
By looking at your innovations through the lens of identity (and, therefore, people’s decision-making hearts), you can more easily identify the ones that will be supported and those that will be axed.
It also changes your results.
“Ok, nerd,” you’re probably thinking. “Thanks for dragging me into your innovation portfolio geek-out.”
Fair, but let me illustrate the power of this perspective using some examples from P&G.
You are a savvy manager, so you know that you need an innovation portfolio because (1) a single innovation isn’t enough to generate the magnitude of growth your company needs, and (2) it is the best way to manage inherently risky endeavors and achieve desired returns.
Too bad you’re wrong.
According to an article in the latest issue of HBR, you shouldn’t have an innovation portfolio. You should have an innovation basket.
Once you finish rolling your eyes (goodness knows I did), hear me (and the article’s authors) out because there is a nuanced but important distinction.
Our journey begins with the obvious.
In their article “A New Approach to Strategic Innovation,” authors Haijian Si, Christoph Loch, and Stelios Kavadias argue that portfolio management approaches have become so standardized as to be practically useless, and they propose a new framework for ensuring your innovation activities achieve your strategic goals.
“Companies typically treat their innovation projects as a portfolio: a mix of projects that, collectively, aim to meet their various strategic objectives,” the article begins. “MOO,” I think (household shorthand for Master Of the Obvious).
“When we surveyed 75 companies in China, we discovered that when executives took the trouble to link their project selection to their business’s competitive goals, the contribution of their innovation activities performance increased dramatically,” the authors continue. “Wow, fill this under N for No Sh*t, Sherlock,” responded my internal monologue.
The authors go on to present and explain their new framework, which is interesting in its focus on asking and answering seemingly simple questions (what, who, why, and how) and identifying internal weaknesses and vulnerabilities through a series of iterative and inclusion conversations. The process is a good one but feels more like an augmentation of an existing approach rather than a radically new one.
Then we hit the “portfolio” vs. “basket” moment.
According to the authors, once the management team completes the first step by reaching a consensus on the changes needed to their strategy, they move on to the second step – creating the innovation basket.
The process of categorizing innovation projects is the next step, and it is where our process deviates from established frameworks. We use the word “basket” rather than “portfolio” to denote a company’s collection of innovation projects. In this way, we differentiate the concept from finance and avoid the mistake of treating projects like financial securities, where the goal is usually to maximize returns through diversification. It’s important to remember that innovation projects are creative acts, whereas investment in financial securities is simply the purchase of assets that have already been created.
“Avoid the mistake of treating projects like financial securities” and “remember that innovation projects are creative acts.” Whoa.
Why this is important in a practical sense (and isn’t just academic fun-with-words)
Think about all the advice you’ve read and heard (and that I’ve probably given you) about innovation portfolios – you need a mix of incremental, adjacent, and radical innovations, and, if you’re creating a portfolio from scratch, use the Golden Ratio.
Yes, and this assumes that everything in your innovation portfolio supports your overall strategy, and that the portfolio is reviewed regularly to ensure that the right projects receive the right investments at the right times.
These assumptions are rarely true.
Projects tend to enter the portfolio because a senior executive suggested them or emerged from an innovation event or customer research and feedback. Once in the portfolio, they progress through the funnel until they either launch or are killed because of poor test results or a slashed innovation budget.
They rarely enter the portfolio because they are required to deliver a higher-level strategy, and they rarely exit because they are no longer strategically relevant. Why? Because the innovation projects in your portfolio are “assets that have already been created.”
What this means for you (and why it’s scary)
Swapping “basket” in for “portfolio” isn’t just the choice of a new word to bolster the claim of creating a new approach. It’s a complete reframing of your role as an innovation executive.
You no longer monitor assets that reflect purchases or investments promising yet-to-be-determined payouts. You are actively starting, shifting, and shutting down opportunities based on business strategy and needs. Shifting from a “portfolio” to a basket” turns your role as an executive from someone who monitors performance to someone who actively manages opportunities.
And this should scare you.
Because this makes the challenge of balancing operations and innovation an unavoidable and regular endeavor. Gone are the days of “set it and forget it” innovation management, which often buys innovation teams time to produce results before their resources are noticed and reallocated to core operations.
If you aren’t careful about building and vigorously defending your innovation basket, it will be easy to pluck resources from it and allocate them to the more urgent and “safer” current business needs that also contribute to the strategic changes identified.
It’s that time of year. The summer sun is beating down harder than ever. The grass is fading from green to brown, and no amount of watering seems to be enough. School supply lists hit your Inbox as Back to School sales fill your mailbox.
Yep, it’s almost Strategic Planning & Budgeting season.
You’ve been through this before, so you know what a strategy is (a set of choices and actions to get you closer to your long-term goals). You know why you need one (set common goals, create shared understanding and responsibility, align key stakeholders, inform priorities and decisions, enable your team to be proactive).
But do you know how to create a strategy that gets used?
No, I’m not talking about a process (though that is important). I’m talking about the experience you create and the expectations you maintain for your team as you develop the strategy.
Earlier this week, a client and I talked about this. We were preparing for a strategic planning offsite, one that we vowed would be different from previous strategic planning efforts that were somewhat successful (a new idea was launched and has since become an essential part of the organization) but left the team with lingering frustration about the process and skepticism about this one.
As we shared our thoughts and I scribbled notes, themes emerged. The next day after the themes were presented to the nearly 50 people in attendance, the head of the group raised his hand. “You’ve just described the I Love Lucy approach to strategy.”
Now, I love a good pop culture reference, especially one that requires a bit of history. But I did not get this one. As I scrunched my face in confusion, he explained, “It’s Ay yi yi yi yi!”
And thus, the I Love Lucy approach to strategy was born.
If you want to create a successful strategy, one that gets you closer to your long-term goals despite an uncertain and changing environment, how you create it must be:
Inclusive: Use the IKEA effect to your advantage and give everyone in your organization a voice. Different voices bring different perspectives to the process and help you avoid groupthink. Research from BCG indicates that “organizations that engage a broad group of internal and external stakeholders in their strategy development efforts yield better results than organizations that leave strategy in the hands of a small, central team.”
Illuminating: In the same way, it’s easy to ignore the softball-sized dust bunny under the bed until your mom comes to visit, it’s easy to ignore the parts of the business that aren’t broke but aren’t in an ideal state until strategic planning season. Your process needs to shine a light on all the nooks and crannies of your business, revealing all the opportunities and flaws to be addressed.
Innovative: You would never write a strategic plan that makes your business worse, but are you writing one that makes it better? In most cases, and often for very sensible reasons tied to incentives and metrics, teams write strategic plans for steady and safe growth. But there’s no such thing in unsteady and uncertain times. If you’re not thinking about what’s possible, you’re not planning to achieve your long-term objectives.
Internalized: A common entertainment trope is a villain who monologues for so long that the hero can escape. So you know who else monologues? Managers talking about strategy. And yes, everyone is looking to escape. Don’t be the villain, be the hero and create a strategy everyone can remember and repeat.
Implemented: The most useful strategic plan I ever saw was in a binder being used to straighten a wobbly table. It was useful, but not in the way its creators intended. If no one acts on your strategy, you just made a great table leveler.
For best results, I also recommend chocolate during the process and Vitameatavegamin after (or during but outside of work hours)
What are your recommendations for a good strategy development experience, a successful strategy, or an I Love Lucy marathon? Let me know in the comments below.
That means you know the answer to every question, make the right decision when faced with every choice, and act confidently when others are uncertain. Right?
(Insert uproarious laughter here).
Of course not. But you act like you do because you’re the leader, the boss, the person in charge.
You are not alone. We’re all doing it.
We act like we have the answers because we’ve been told that’s what leaders do. We act like we made the right decision because that’s what leaders do in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world where we must work quickly and flexibly while doing more with less.
But what if we didn’t?
What if we stopped pretending to have the answer or know the right choice? What if we acknowledged the ambiguity of a situation, explored its options and interpretations for just a short while, and then decided?
We’d make more informed choices. We’d be more creative and innovative. We’d inspire others.
So why do we keep pretending?
Ambiguity: Yea! Meh. Have you lost your mind?!?
Stanford’s d.School calls the ability to navigate ambiguity “the super ability” because it’s necessary for problem-finding and problem-solving. Ambiguity “involves recognizing and stewing in the discomfort of not knowing, leveraging and embracing parallel possibilities, and resolving or emerging from ambiguity as needed.”
Navigating ambiguity is essential in a VUCA world, but not all want to. They found that people tend to do one of three things when faced with ambiguity:
Endure ambiguity as “a moment of time that comes before a solution and is antagonistic to the objective – it must be conquered to reach the goal.”
Engage ambiguity as “an off-road adventure; an alternate path to a goal. It might be rewarding and helpful or dangerous and detrimental. Its value is a chosen gamble. Exhilaration and exhaustion are equally expected.”
Embrace ambiguity as “oceanic and ever-present. Exploration is a challenge and an opportunity. The longer you spend in it, the more likely you are to discover something new. Every direction is a possibility. Navigation isn’t simple. It requires practice and patience.
Students tend to enter the program with a resignation that ambiguity must be endured. They leave embracing it because they learn how to navigate it.
You can too.
In fact, as a leader in a VUCA world, you and your team need to.
How to Embrace (or at least Engage) Ambiguity
When you want to learn something new, the library is one of the best places to start. In this case, the Library of Ambiguity – an incredible collection of the resources, tools, and activities that professors at Stanford’s d.School use to help their students build this super ability.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of resources, so here are three that I recommend:
What it is: A tool to help individuals better understand the tolerance of ambiguity, especially their comfort, learning, and panic zones
When to use it: Stanford used this as a reflection tool at the end of an introductory course, BUT I would use it at the start of the project as a leadership alignment and team-building tool:
Leadership alignment – Ask individual decision-makers to identify their comfort, learning, and panic zones for each element of the Project Scoping Guide (problem to be solved, target customer, context, goals, and priorities), then synthesize the results. As a group, highlight areas of agreement and resolve areas of difference.
Team-building – At the start of the project, ask individual team members to complete the worksheet as it applies to both the project scope and the process. Individuals share their worksheets and, as a group, identify areas of shared comfort and develop ways to help each other through areas of learning or panic.
Why I like it: Very similar to the Project Playground concept I use with project teams to define the scope and set constraints, it can be used individually to build empathy and support amongst team members.
What it is: A tool to build trust and confidence amongst a team working through an ambiguous effort
When to use it: At regular pre-defined intervals during a project (e.g., every team check-in, at the end of each Sprint, once a month)
What I like about it:
Individuals complete it BEFORE the meeting, so the session focuses on discussing the dashboard, not completing it
The dashboard focuses on the usual business things (progress against responsibilities, the biggest challenge, next steps) and the “softer” elements that tend to have the most significant impact on team experience and productivity (mood, biggest accomplishment, team balance between talking and doing)
Learn It. Do It.
The world isn’t going to get simpler, clearer, or slower. It’s on you as a leader to learn how to deal with it. When to slow it down and explore and when to speed it up and act. No one is born knowing. We all learn along the way. The Library will help. No ambiguity about that!
Sometimes the value can be hard to describe, let alone quantify. You know that, ultimately, the value needs to be financial – more revenue, lower costs, higher profit. You also know that the value created in the short term will likely be more intangible – increased satisfaction, improved brand perception, and greater loyalty.
Your challenge, especially in tough economic times, is to tell a story that connects success indicators seen in the short term to the financial returns realized in the long term and maintain support and funding as the story unfolds.
That is a HUGE challenge! One that overwhelms most managers because they don’t know where to start let alone how to maintain support and momentum.
But you are not “most managers.” You know that the best place to start is at the beginning.
What is the Goal of Innovation (i.e., why are we investing in this)?
Goal #1: Create (or keep) a competitive advantage
Innovation is essential because it keeps you ahead of the competition.
Your business is already a leader in something that creates a competitive advantage, and your innovation efforts focus on keeping it that way.
For example, imagine you’re the President of Big Machine Co (BMC). You’ve been in business for decades in an industry with commoditized products, few competitors, high barriers to entry, and medium barriers to switching (i.e., it can be done, but it’s a pain).
You know that customer relationships and loyalty are the fuel that drives your business and why you’re #1 in the market. As a result, you focus your innovation efforts on creating new products or services that deliver unique value to your customers and provide easy and fast resolution to service issues.
Innovation is essential because it keeps your business alive.
Your business is falling behind the competition either because you’re not keeping up with their pace of innovation or because you’re failing to deliver on table stakes like quality, price, or accessibility. You invest in innovation to catch up to the competition or regain your place in customers’ consideration.
Let’s go back to Big Machine Co. Because of the amazing growth you achieved as President, you’re now CEO (congrats!). The new President continued your innovation strategy but got so excited by everything new he forgot to pay attention to the “old” things – existing products, manufacturing capabilities, and people. Now, you’re #2 in the market and losing customers at a concerning rate.
It’s time to get back to basics and invest in “new to BMC” innovations by creating products that customers want and competition can already offer, investing in manufacturing equipment and processes that improve efficiency and quality, and retaining people who have the knowledge, experience, and relationships that are the heart of the business.
Goal #3: Build a reputation for being innovative
Innovation is essential because doing it makes the company look good (and executives and shareholders feel good), regardless of whether it produces results.
Your business demands innovation, new news, and big splashes. Your customers want novelty, not perfection. Image is everything, and perception is reality. You invest in innovation to show what’s possible, provoke conversation, and stay in the spotlight.
Believe it or not, this is on your mind as CEO of Big Machine Co. Your customers demand perfection, not novelty, but they need to shed the perception that they’re boring companies in a boring industry moving at a glacial pace to attract and retain the next generation of talent. You can help.
You look beyond the market to identify trends and technologies in the news but not yet in your industry. You identify the ones that could transform industries and make your customers’ eyes light up with wonder and excitement. You create proof of concept prototypes that make the vision tangible and discuss the plan and timing of the first step toward that vision.
How to Goal Helps
Your reason for innovating informs everything else – your strategy, structure, activities, metrics, and governance.
That is why you can only have one Why at a time.
Yes, it’s tempting to try to do a bit of everything, but that often results in achieving nothing.
Think back to Big Machine Co:
If the products break, don’t perform as they should, or aren’t available when needed, it doesn’t matter how excellent the customer service is or how cool the new products are. You must achieve Goal #2 (avoid or overcome competitive disadvantage) to earn the right to pursue Goal #1 (create or maintain competitive advantage)
If the products are the right quality, perform as expected, and arrive on time but the customer service is poor, and there are no new products, it’s hard to believe that a company that struggles to deliver incremental innovation can deliver on a radically innovative vision. You must make progress against Goal #1 to have permission to pursue Goal #3 (build a reputation).
The next time you face the challenge of connecting your innovation’s short-term success indicators to the long-term financial returns and maintaining support and funding, don’t be overwhelmed.
Go back to the beginning and explain, “It achieves (Goal #) so that we earn the right to invest in (Goal #).”
That’s the day when each of us resolves to do something new that creates value.
Start working out so I lose weight, look better, and feel healthier.
Stop smoking, so I live longer.
Turn off my computer and phone at 6:00 pm so I focus on family.
Only 20% of people are innovators on February 1. The rest of us gave up our resolutions and decided to keep doing the same things that create (good enough) value.
Your business is no different.
At the start of the fiscal year, you resolve to innovate!
Explore new offerings, customers, and business models
Experiment with new ways to get things done
Enter new markets
Then something goes wrong, and you divert some people (not everyone!) from innovating to fixing an operational problem.
Then the first quarter starts coming in below expectations, and you cut budgets to stay on track to deliver the bottom line.
Then something else happens, and something else, and something else, and soon it’s “February 1,” and, for excellent and logical reasons, you give up your resolution to innovate and focus all your resources on operating and hitting your KPIs.
Resolve to Revive.
Innovation is something NEW that creates value.
New is hard. It’s difficult to start something new, and it’s challenging to continue doing it when things inevitably go awry. Investing in something uncertain is risky, primarily when more “certain” investment opportunities exist. It’s why New Year’s resolutions and Innovation strategies don’t stick.
Revival is the creation of new value from OLD.
When you work on Revival, you go back to the old things, the things you explored, tried, implemented, or even launched years ago that didn’t work then but could create more value than anything you’re doing today.
Your business is filled with Revival opportunities.
How to Reveal Revivals
Ask, “What did we do before…?”
Everything we do now – research, development, marketing, sales, communication, M&A – was done before smartphones, laptops, desktops, and even mainframes. Often new technology makes our work easier or more efficient. But sometimes, it just creates work and bad habits.
If you are trying to make Zoom/Teams calls less exhausting and more productive, try to remember meetings before Zoom/Teams. They were conference calls. So, next time you need to meet, revive and schedule a phone conference (or a cameras-off Zoom/Teams call).
Find the failures
Most companies are highly skilled at hiding any evidence of failure. But the memories and stories live on in the people who worked on them. Talk to them, and you may discover a blockbuster idea that failed for reasons you can quickly address.
Like Post-It Notes.
While some parts of the Post-Its story are true – the adhesive was discovered by accident and first used to bookmark pages in a hymnal, most people don’t know that 10 YEARS passed between hymnal use and market success. In that decade, the project was shelved twice, failed in a test market, and given away as free samples before it became successful.
Resurrect the Dead
The decision to exit a market or discontinue a product is never easy or done lightly. And once management makes the decision, people operate under the assumption that the company should never consider returning. But that belief can sometimes be wrong.
Consider Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery and one of its old ice cream shops.
In 1829, David G. Yuengling founded Eagle Brewing in Pottsville, PA. The business did well until, you guessed it, Prohibition. In 1920, D.G. Yuengling & Sons (formerly Eagle Brewing) built a plant across the street from their brewery and began producing ice cream. When Prohibition ends, brewing restarts, and ice cream production continues. Until 1985, when a new generation takes the helm at Yuengling and, under the guise of operational efficiency and business optimization, shut down the ice cream business to focus on beer. TWENTY-NINE YEARS later, executives looking for growth opportunities remembered the ice cream business and re-launched the product to overwhelming customer demand.
Just because you need growth doesn’t mean you need New.
Innovation is something new that creates value. But it doesn’t have to be new to the world.
Tremendous value can be created and captured by doing old things in new ways, markets, or eras.