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How to Win the Innovation Race

How to Win the Innovation Race

Innovation is less like a sprint or a marathon than a relay race: a team event where the hand-offs between each phase are the most crucial moments of the competition. Bringing together the fastest people won’t necessarily ensure a first-place finish in the innovation relay. The quickest runner is only useful if he or she can pass the baton smoothly over to the next teammate. As soon as that baton is dropped, the race is lost. The victory is in the exchange.

Managing those tricky hand-off points is key to seeing a creativity initiative through to its final payout. Too many ideas stagnate or die because their originators can’t shift them to the next step of the developmental cycle. The challenge is moving between the critical transitional stages–from concept to product, from local to global distribution. You might have a knockout idea and a brilliant strategy for executing that idea, but if you can’t properly hand the baton over when that item or service is made to scale and commercialized, then you’ll lose the innovation race.

There are three key legs to the innovation race, each with their own difficult hand-off points. The first is the forward position. This is the early, exciting phase of brainstorming, when organizations gather the most creative people and run rapid experiments. This entails diversifying, hedging, seeing what works and what doesn’t work. The radical visionaries in the forward position often drop the baton when they’re handing it off to those in the second leg–the people who will turn this idea into a real thing. That’s because there is too much variation and not enough resource or impact in this initial leg. As a result, forward-position thinkers run the risk of becoming orphans whose ideas fail to go anywhere, instead remaining unrealized possibilities.

The next leg is the middling position, when organizations make an innovation viable or workable. This involves creating the right strategy and enrolling the right people to make and sell the product or service. It requires both hiring and staffing and sales and marketing. The problem is that this is the longest part of the innovation race, so it’s very easy to lose momentum. It’s also the part of the race when two oppositional types of people must come together harmoniously: the focused, enterprising profit-driven individuals and the collaborative, empowering community-minded individuals. If these contending forces cannot learn how to work cooperatively, then the project will get stuck in a stalemate.

The final leg of the innovation relay is the aft position, where organizations operationalize and scale innovations. This is the point where you need to make a million of your new product or you have to bring your service everywhere. At this stage, everything needs to sync up. This may involve process improvements, technology enhancements, or supply-chain coordination. The object is to stabilize the complete system, improve quality, optimize efficiency. The people who run the aft position are analytical and technical. The problem is that they reduce the speed and magnitude of innovation in favor of standards to establish control. So in a sense, they take the innovation out of the innovation. They may slow down the innovation so much that they ultimately get to the end of the relay too late, after competitors have already gotten there.

So how do you run fast and smoothly? How can you make it through and between each leg efficiently? Here are three strategies for managing those intermediate steps in the innovation race.

Previewing: Place members of the next leg of the race on the previous leg so that they understand what needs to happen at the hand-off. Put the radical thinkers and inventors in close communication with the marketing gurus. For example, if you’re writing a new computer program or software application, you’ll want to staff your team with a non-IT specialist who knows the customer base well, so you can make your product accessible to the public. Similarly, keep members of the previous leg on the team after the hand-off to ensure that the innovation isn’t lost. Make sure that the person who designed your innovation continues to influence the project so it retains its original vision.

Translating: Find the emissaries and ambassadors who can translate between different departments. This is especially important in the middling position, when business and financial leaders must join up with human resources and marketing leaders. Enlist the help of mediators who can interlace the two opposing groups and look for ways to balance their perspectives.

Rotating: Provide temporary assignments so that leaders will have experience with running all three legs of the innovation race. Experts in any given department often have no idea what goes in other sectors of an organization. Try assigning Research & Development staff to the manufacturing plant or the service operation so that they actually understand what’s required to make the products they help conceive. And on the other side, bring some of these manufacturing people into the R&D plant so they can understand the level of magnitude required to be competitive. Give runners in all steps of the race a line of sight to the other legs.

You don’t want to run the whole innovation relay only to find that you dropped the baton somewhere along the way. Practice, polish, and perfect those hand-offs. Keep the baton off the ground and you’ll get to the finish line before even the fastest sprinter.

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