Who’s Driving Your Innovation Bus?


Innovation has become the buzzword of the decade with every CEO, Senior Manager, and CTO beating the drum for “Innovation” in their companies. While I don’t disagree with them on the need for innovation, I do have a major issue with the way that many of them are driving that innovation agenda.

When tech leaders or business leaders drive an innovation agenda within their own areas of speciality without integrating that agenda with the core value creating areas of the business the agenda is doomed to mediocrity. In addition, in most cases these leaders are not differentiating between “Innovating” (solving problems in new ways) and “Implementing Innovations” (the application of other’s innovations within your business).

To be fair, I don’t actually believe that Innovation is an either/or issue either, there are good reasons to implement other’s innovations within your business. P&G has been very successful in knocking down the “not invented here” mentality that can slow the overall growth of an organization. But in saying it isn’t an either/or issue I also believe that an organization that “never invents here” will similarly languish over time.

The difference between an organization that Innovates vs Implements Innovation is largely who drives the innovation agenda. When the front end of the business (product development, marketing etc) drives innovation they often employ a design thinking approach, looking carefully at their business problems to ensure they have defined their problems in an appropriate way, observing and surveying their customers to identify new opportunities, and trying new ideas in a controlled manner to learn and develop new ideas. When the back end of an organization (technology, operations) drives innovation they often find interesting and shiny new ideas or technology which they believe would be “cool” and they bring them to the business for support and implementation.

In my mind the ideal balance is a front-end driven innovation strategy with active back end participation so the front-end strategy and vision can be realized through ideas and technology that the back end brings to the table. Without grounding the new “shiny objects” in the strategy and vision of the business innovation leadership the effect can be a very disjointed customer experience and business landscape. Without grounding the vision in the execution realities of the back end the result can be a dynamic roadmap which can never be realized.

I’ll give one example of what I would consider an ideal partnership which I’ve seen in action in a major global company:

The front end of the business (in this case a manager planning a new work location) identified a new way to consider a problem. Where the old problem statement of office design in this organization was “I need X number of work stations for my new employees” which resulted in a standard layout of cubicles on the floor, he instead stated “I need a space for my X new employees to work.”

The difference is subtle, but the new problem statement cause him to look at what successful “work” meant for him and his team and jettisoned the fixed concept of “work spaces” which would have inevitably resulted in more cubicles.

When he brought that new statement back to the real estate team they were able to bring him ideas that supported his work needs for collaboration, flexible work spaces, and floating and dynamic teams.

The result was a collaborative and design oriented process where the teams worked together to experiment, test, and learn from their combined thinking and ultimately resulted in a new workspace planning strategy across the whole organization which delivered millions of dollars in real estate savings, significantly higher employee engagement, and more productivity.

The internal innovation was driving to understand the problem in a new way, and then leveraging a design thinking approach to solving the problem in a collaborative way. The external innovations they implemented to meet those needs included VOIP technology, smart white boards, video conferencing, remote work solutions, flexible and portable office furniture, and more common spaces for communication, but those outside innovations were integrated and aligned to the value creating problem statement to create a cohesive whole.

In my opinion you can not successfully drive innovation from the back end of an organization – you will wind up with a disjointed set of shiny objects. You also cannot drive innovation solely from the front end or you will wind up with an incredible future view with very little ability to execute on any of it.

The solution is to build a strong partnership between the front and back end of the organization, but driven by the front-end to ensure alignment of the innovation agenda to the creation of value for the customer and the organization – which is ultimately the goal of innovation in the first place.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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