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Building on Thoughts from Leaders: Innovation on a Budget

Originally published on April 19, 2017

This is part nine of a multi-part Blog series on strengthening your team by building on thoughts from experts. The foundation for these articles derives from comments made by writers in the Harvard Business Review over the years to which I add my expertise and experience.

INNOVATION. It is a buzzword associated with a broad spectrum of meanings that are sometimes as unique as the interpreter. From nudging processes to wholesale revision and replacement of processes, product and service lines, and even the focus and mission of an organization, innovation is one of the key concepts in business discussions worldwide.

All it takes to explore the options that may help an organization prosper, gain new ideas, or examine emerging trends in business is sitting down in front of a computer–or with your mobile device–and doing a quick Google search. Of course, we all know that even Google has limits in terms of usefulness, especially since the system provides pointers to pretty much anything that has ever been digitized and made public-facing, regardless of time-sensitivity and context. In other words, sometimes too much data can be as troublesome as a paucity of data.

Much like the recent change made within my company to utilize tenets from project management to ensure that resources and emphasis are being allocated and placed in the most optimal fashion, formal processes in other organizations need to be in place to ensure that innovation can take place without additional strain on current resources. In other words, innovation on a budget.

As a leader, one cannot assume that processes and constraints will kill innovation. I remember well the scene from the film Apollo 13 where engineers were faced with the problem of reducing Carbon Monoxide (CO) levels in the spacecraft and were given only the items that the astronauts would have available and a tight–in fact, life-critical–timeline within which to complete the highly-constrained task. As we all know, they were able to overcome the boundaries and accomplish successfully the task that resulted in keeping the astronauts alive until reentry. Sometimes, these boundaries work in an organization’s favor, providing less opportunity for divergence and spending time on tangential issues not directly contributing to mission accomplishment and accelerating innovation by focusing on necessary creativity and frugal resource consumption.

Building Boundaries Without Building Walls.

Boundaries–especially financial ones–are common among SMBs. But even large organizations and global companies need to focus on innovation as though they were an SMB to optimize their resources as well as foster a climate where analysis of resource use is done to prevent waste, whether a means to providing a service or affecting a profit margin. Writers in the Harvard Business Review have suggested four tips to help optimize innovation while not wasting resources.

Realistic/frugal budget. The word innovation does not equate to spending exorbitant amounts of money–even if you count in the budget the man-hours spent on the project. Managing costs may include using open-source software applications instead of spending hundreds–or thousands–on software tools or having proprietary software developed. There are also open-source tools available for such functions as market research, visualizing prototypes, and so forth.

Use the real market to test. Get a new design ready to go and then do a sample test out in the real world. Use the results to refine your process/product/service and then field the more perfect design with all the bells and whistles (or not). There is no need to reach perfection before getting external input and it saves embarrassment later if you but the “perfect” design out there and people do not like it.

What Business Plan? Seriously, this is a project rather than a full-blown startup. There is no need to dig down into the minute details necessary for a business plan. Focus on the idea, making it happen, the big picture and associated major moving parts. If your innovation is designed to rebrand, retool, or restructure the organization, once the process is set in motion you can work the details at the business plan level.

OODA: Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. Much like this axiom from the military, innovation take streamlined decision-making within the context of the organization’s operating environment. Ideas will be plentiful (hopefully) but not all ideas pan out. Do not be afraid to recognize a failing idea, wind it down, and then free those resources up to implement another part of the plan–or another plan altogether, in some cases.

In Closing…

Providing the right boundaries while encouraging–and leading–innovation is the responsibility of leaders. Create processes that provide structure without being so rigid that innovation and change cannot happen. And a leadership thought on these processes–don’t bury them in bureaucracy…that will squelch the open-mindedness necessary for foster innovation. 


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Join me next week for the tenth & final post in this series: A Story of Purpose and Relevance.

Want to know more about executive leadership? I facilitate a half-day executive seminar that brings concepts to the table for collaborative exercises and application to your organization’s needs.

Harvard Business School. (2011). Management tips from Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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