A Traditional View:

Most articles you are ever going to read about business transformation only make passing reference to innovation. What they focus on are models and methods for managing a process that has an implied idea of what it is trying to produce. This is sometimes referred to as a target operating model or merely a target end-state but how that was decided upon is left to the imagination.

Even other models like Lean or Six Sigma are based on assumptions that cutting out waste or cost is the fundamental solution to an otherwise ill-defined problem. Undoubtedly they are useful methods but they don’t answer the basic question of how to introduce innovation into the ongoing change.

Take another example such as Quality Function Deployment (QFD). This is a very systematic way for organisations to re-engineer their processes with a view to long-term sustainable improvement. On the other hand it doesn’t offer much in the way of structured approaches for getting innovation to work.

So these ideas of how to achieve a transformation don’t of themselves encourage much, if anything, in the way of innovation. And that strikes me as a very odd contradiction. If you are trying to transform then something new is required – not a reworking of the old ideas. Just playing catch-up, by getting to the very best way of doing existing things, isn’t getting ahead of the game. Yet it is surprising how much so-called business transformation does just that.

New Kids on the Block

There are always new entrants to any sector of business and some of them take the opportunity to break the rules and do things differently. Your competitors may no longer be just down the road. They may be on the other side of the planet and are using technology to interact with customers from anywhere. In some respects this is a side-effect of the digital revolution. However they don’t have sole rights to be the real innovators.

Instead there is an opening for the existing business to do things with great innovation and, because you have the experience of life so far, the possibility of using that insight to massive effect.

How Do You Make Innovation Just Happen?

It’s actually a very easy thing to do. On the other hand it isn’t in the usual manager’s handbook of how to operate or run a business. What it requires is an open mind at the very top of the organisation that encourages all the tiers to be open to challenge. That way you get a culture that expects new ideas to be forthcoming even without doing anything special to encourage them.

If you think about this you will understand the dilemma. Most people in senior positions think that now they have got there they have the right for their view to prevail. Even if they don’t think that way personally a lot of those working below them will believe it to be true and will defer to the views of the boss. It presents something of a dichotomy which is how to get the more junior members of the team to challenge the boss on a regular basis. But believe me – it’s truly worth the effort.

It relies more on the model of boss as facilitator or resource investigator rather than the giver of laws and regulations. In turn this works best when everyone understands what the organisation is trying to do and what challenges it is trying to overcome. Business transformation that is truly innovative is only going to appear when the boundaries are taken away. But once they are taken away then magic can start to happen.

You see innovation is within everyone – it just needs an opportunity to surface. Rather like allowing some fresh air into a stale room, the impact is immediate and noticeable. So where do you start?

Start Small and Ripple Outwards

There’s a tried and tested way of making organisational development work which is to start with a tiny group of people and build in small, iterative steps. At each iteration you can add a few more to the pool while keeping the impetus of the core firmly in the majority. That way the additional members won’t reverse the direction as they become acclimatised to the new ways of thinking.

Don’t forget – this bit of development is about encouraging challenge to existing thinking and opening up to innovation. Once you have a solid core of people like that it will start to pervade the corporate culture at all levels. Now, as the saying goes, you’re cooking! You see having a culture of openness and challenge that in turn encourages innovation to flourish will start to impact on business transformation as it is being developed.

It’s rather like the best sports teams – where individual players know and trust their team mates and can anticipate each other. They feed off one another rather than relying on being told what to do by the coach shouting from the touchline.

For the boss this is actually truly rewarding as well. These types of organisations are a lot easier to manage because the dialogue shifts from direction to understanding and investigating better ways of operating at all levels. Returning to the sporting analogies you can develop a team that works in this way by bringing them up through the academy rather than having to buy in expensive stars. For the latter you might substitute the cost of hiring expensive external consultants – but are those consultants truly worth it if they move on and the rest of the team hasn’t changed?

How Is Innovation Going to Surface in a Business Transformation?

There are lots of simple techniques that can be used to address the areas of problem inquiry and solution design. Many of them are quite playful and might be looked down on in an organisation that isn’t open to doing things differently. So you have to work on the culture before you start to introduce the methods. As with anything, understanding the people and how they are likely to interact is key.

When advising clients on how to engage their staff and start a business transformation programme the first thing I do is get them to look at themselves and their team(s) and do some simple analysis of personal styles. What is extraordinary is that this seldom seems to be on the agenda – even in large corporates with an HR department who could advise them. On the other hand how you expect a group of people to react is complete guesswork when you have no insight into their personal styles. Successful transformations aren’t built on guesses, they are built on genuine understanding. That applies not only to the root problems being addressed but also to the resource (including the people) that is tackling them.

So, once you understand your people you can look for appropriate tools and techniques that they can use to develop innovation along the way. If you are interested in getting a good grounding in this then get hold of a copy of 101 Executive Uses for a Square Camel. It is packed with easy to understand ideas and methods that are proven to work. The important point is that virtually no business transformation that is guided by external consultants ever engages at this level. This means that the native innovation doesn’t get a chance to come through and therefore ownership of the delivery is weak at best or non-existent at worst. It’s a contributing factor in many transformation failures.

You are dealing with human beings who are naturally creative and innovative all the time and so you need to make certain that you can tap into that and nurture it for mutual benefit. Pure exploitation is a truly bad thing – you want everyone to be willing participants and they will be if their natural styles and attributes are allowed to flourish. To coin a different metaphor, a good gardener uses the natural inclinations and attributes of the plants according to the context, rather than expecting the sun-loving ones to flourish in the shade or vice versa.

Transformation Is Problem-solving

You should never overlook the fact that designing and executing a business transformation is in response to an underlying problem. If you don’t do that creatively then the chances are you won’t do it well. Just copying what others (appear to) have done is a recipe for failure. That’s one reason why hiring consultants who have “done this dozens of times before” maybe isn’t the right way forward. Instead ask how what you might be about to do can become more innovative than everyone else?

Put that question to the people you are thinking of hiring if you are looking for external help. Then be rigorous in testing HOW they intend to get that innovation into the process. If the answers are vague then kick them off the shortlist of potential partners. You shouldn’t be paying huge sums of money for a “me too” approach to something that is intended to be transformational. But at the same time don’t fall for the idea that some basic things don’t apply to you either. Parts of the solution may well be off-the-shelf components that can be used straight out of the box. It’s how you get creative in bringing those components together with a little bit of something special that will deliver killer results.

(There was a reason why we won industry awards when I was running product development for a Retail Financial Services organisation – we knitted together core components that were robust in ways that were innovative. Customers and intermediaries alike loved them because they were flexible but also understandable.)

Make Innovation Part of the Process

Initially people find it hard to believe that innovation can be systematised. There is a belief that somehow it just comes from certain people who are naturally creative. How wrong they are! In reality simple processes can develop innovative ideas as a matter of routine. The issue is knowing what those process steps should be and then getting people to use them

If you would like to discuss how to get your team onto the path of innovation as part of transforming your business, then contact us and we’ll offer a free consultation to help you work out what to do.

There are some straightforward options that include training and developing the core creativity skills that can then be brought to bear. It really is down to the business leaders to ensure that these are taken on board and become part of the culture. The benefits far outweigh the costs. Indeed you should view all innovation and creativity as both natural but also playful additions to the working life. Your organisation will be much better off as a result.

Find Out More

More information on how to approach business transformation in your organisation can be obtained through a free consultation with one of our team. Start the conversation by getting in touch.

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The author Rob Wherrett can be contacted at https://robwherrett.com/contact/

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