Everyone and his brother is out there on social media lamenting on lack of disruptive innovation. While I don’t pretend to be a big innovator, there is a portion of my work that can be termed as “innovation” , or even “disruptive innovation”. And after a few years of doing this, I can say with confidence that it comes at a high price, and it is not for everybody. Admittedly, I have come close to getting out of “innovation” a few times – but have continued to keep at it.
First issue is identifying what to work on. On an average, I consider 10 ideas to pick one to work on. These ideas come up as I talk with customers, colleagues, mentors, mentees and some times while watching TV or reading a book in a plane. I will jot it down the soonest I can – and usually have an assortment of paper napkin sketches, notepad files etc where ideas are scattered. I am not the only one who comes up with ideas – everyone in my team contributes ideas. Then I shortlist these based on only one criteria – is this something that can make my customer’s life easier in a tangible manner? If the answer is no – I ruthlessly cut it off. This hurts egos more than one would think – especially my own. Some ideas that look brilliant as I jot it down in a plane ride look ridiculous when I think about it over a weekend. And occasionally, it upsets my team when I kill one of their ideas. This needs to be done with some balance – if all you do is kill idea after idea, it just becomes a de-motivator.
Next up is recruiting a team to work on the idea. This is probably the hardest part – not everyone likes to do everything. And people have a life outside work, and value their work life balance. I have to respect that, and still make it work. And where I work, the team is spread across the globe – and typically we catchup over late evenings and weekends to work on innovations. No one pulls rank when it comes to innovation – people are free to join and drop off . My philosophy is that if people work on innovations voluntarily, it works out better than if it is forced down their throats based on official rank. So far it has worked out well – and I could not have asked for a better set of colleagues to work with.
It also improves teamwork and delegation abilities. I understood early on that delegation is the key to success. And I try to teach that to everyone in my team. The trick to delegating successfully is to make sure the team understands what is being delegated, and what is their authority and responsibility. You cannot just delegate responsibility ! But once they are comfortable with taking on authority, and willing to be held responsible – the results are unbelievable. Irrespective of the result of the actual innovation project – they develop into amazing leaders, and it is the biggest gratification I get in my job. I did not invent this – my managers took this approach with me, and I am paying it forward for the next generation. Some times, things don’t work out as planned and an inexperienced person might screw up. It is up to the manager to make sure there is sufficient support when failure happens, and no one is thrown under the bus. Especially when it comes to disruptive innovation, this is key. If you cannot live with this – don’t start down this path.
And then there is the price to pay on family life, hobbies etc. I had to sacrifice a lot, and so have many people I know. My wife supports me to a great extent, and without that I would not have taken this up. It is hard to balance – and once you are deep into an innovation project, it is extremely hard to switch off completely. This is rather unfair for the family, and has to be carefully weighed before starting, and then periodically throughout the project. At the moment, the only way I handle this is to take breaks between innovation projects so that there is some balance on personal front. The work-life balance is a personal decision – and if you care enough about your team, you should watch out for their work-life balance too. All of this needs to be factored in when you plan the project. Nothing ever works to plan, and you need to balance aggressive milestones with a dose of reality. This is a learning process, and I am definitely in the first half.
Finally – disrupting the “life as usual” for a customer, or for your own company is a challenge. it does not matter if you spent 3 months working every waking hour on this project. If you cannot make a business case and SHOW things will get better, no one will accept your innovations. And then you have 2 problems -1. risk of wasting the blood, sweat and tears spent on current project, and 2. getting investments for next project from management. And you would have broken a lot of glass before the final solution is pitched – so there is a potential long term price to pay as well.
And one last thing – be prepared to take the least amount of credit for success, and maximum amount of criticism for failure. It is easy to know if this is working or not – if it is not working, you will soon find that there is no one left working shoulder to shoulder with you any more.
So with this big price tag – will I do this ever again? ABSOLUTELY ! I won’t change a thing – it is the most satisfying part of my job 🙂