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A Model for Driving Innovation in Your Organization

By: Michael Mitchell
Last updated 10/13/2010

There is a great deal of talk about innovation and its importance now more than ever. A Google search of “the importance of innovation” will turn up more than one hundred million hits related to business. The topic is now an intense focus in the academic community and corporate annual reports are filled with lofty statements of intent. However, there is more talk than action. While there is little doubt that organizations have to be innovative to succeed, there is definitely a knowing and doing gap when it comes to innovation. There is a concrete desire to be innovative, but a less concrete understanding of exactly how to do so.

What gets in the way of doing more than talking about innovation? What do you as a manager have to put in place in order to get beyond the talk and get action and results? The answer lies in the “4 Ps of Innovation.”

The 4 Ps is a model I created many years ago to describe the four most important things an organization has to have in place if they are going to see results from innovation. It is intended to mimic the 4 Ps of Marketing—the fundamental elements that a marketer must understand and use to drive marketing results: product, price, promotion, and place/distribution. As a professor of both marketing and innovation, I thought it would give my students a familiar way to frame the somewhat esoteric topic of innovation. Outside the classroom, as I worked with clients on driving innovation in their organization, I found that many of the mistakes and successes I endured with them could fit into one of the 4 Ps of Innovation. Thus, I developed the 4 Ps of Innovation model: Priority, Plan, People and Process. These are the four key ingredients you must have in your organization if you’re serious about moving from just talking about innovation to actually producing results.

Priority
The first thing you have to do to get moving towards making innovation something real in your organization is to make it a priority. While this may sound obvious, putting a priority on innovation is something that is easier said than done. Organizations fail because innovation, as a true, organized effort, always falls off the to-do list or never makes it on the list at all.

What keeps innovation off the to-do list when it’s so obvious it should be at the top? The crush of everyday business is to blame. Over many years, I’ve seen what could have been great innovations get pushed aside for “more pressing matters.” Pressing matters which offer more short-term results too often take precedence over the longer-term rewards of innovation. As a priority, innovation has fallen victim to the current crisis in American business: short-term results and little accountability for the future. Managers have to change that dynamic and put priority on innovation in order to push past the current malaise.

How do you make innovation a priority? The directive has to come from on high. Senior management has to state the commitment, focus, and the priority on innovation. They have to lay out the overall goals and make the commitment to resources they believe it will take to reach those goals. However, senior management’s job is not finished then. Senior management has to stay involved, on the side-line as a leader and coach, continuing to demonstrate commitment and maintain the focus.

The other common reason why innovation is not a priority is that it is not a well understood discipline. As people tend to avoid doing what they don’t understand, innovation doesn’t get done. Innovation is something in which most managers have no formal training and universities only recently have begun to address in curriculum. There is a dearth of understanding about the how-to of innovation. The next three Ps will help to alleviate some of this lack of understanding.

Plan
The old saying of plan your work and work your plan applies to innovation as well. If you are really going to be a more innovative organization, then specific goals have to be set and ways of reaching those goals must be determined. Just like your organization likely has a business plan or a marketing plan, there has to be a formal innovation plan—in writing and shared appropriately with the organization. Like any good plan, an innovation plan must include:

Objectives: qualitatively and quantitatively, what do you want to achieve with your innovation efforts? Is it a certain revenue goal from new products or is it organic growth through improving current products? Are there specific improvements to a certain process or department? Whatever you want out of innovation, you have to name it and make it specific, measurable, and time-bound. When you get specific, you should see more real results and move from talking about innovation toward actually getting something innovative done.

Strategies: How will you accomplish your specific objectives? Will you need to introduce two new products to yield your revenue goal? How will you align personnel to achieve the improvement in a process or within a department? Strategies are the how behind the objective and they have to be a part of your innovation plan.

People
Getting something done in the world of innovation has no more important element than the people you make responsible for doing so. The innovation team has to be carefully chosen and artfully arranged and given the same attention you would give to creating a senior-level advisory board. These people, after all, have the future of your company in their hands.

What’s the right team?

With any team, you need to start with a good leader. The leader of an innovation team has to have passion for innovation, be a great visionary in order to imagine that which is not yet realized, be a tremendous communicator who can articulate and share the vision, and have tremendous tenacity to overcome all the obstacles that arise in the business of innovation. The team itself should have all, or at least some, of the attributes of the leader. Above all, they have to feel that their work is important and appreciated. Being part of the innovation team can’t be viewed as “busy work” or “serving time” on a team that has very little real value. I once had a new product manager describe her role on the innovation team as “something she had to get through” as part of her rotation through the company. Clearly, she did not have the passion for innovation or she wasn’t getting the message of the importance of innovation in her organization. Being on the innovation team can’t be seen as merely another step or something less. It has to be seen for what it is: on the front line of determining the future of the organization, critically important and possibly one of the most exciting assignments someone can have in their career.

Most important, do not make the mistake of putting only the “creative types” on the innovation team. Innovation takes creativity, of course, and having some creative types on the team is a good idea. However, they will need to be balanced by those who will help make those perhaps wild ideas achievable. It’s the combination and balance of blue sky thinkers with the practical minded that make innovative ideas come to fruition.

Process
You have to have a process in place to derive, evaluate,and move ideas along a development path. As contrary as a “processes” discipline and rigidity may sound to the more free-wheeling concept of innovation, it is absolutely necessary in to have a step-by-step process. The process must define how and when ideas will be generated, how they will be evaluated, how will they be nurtured and funded and, lastly, how will you decide a final go or no go.

Lastly, the 4 Ps need to rest on bedrock of the right culture. In some ways I think of culture as the 5th, but most important, P: Place. If the 4 Ps aren’t operating in the right place, the odds that they will make the difference between talking about innovation and getting it done are slim.

What is the culture that supports the 4 Ps? First and foremost, it has to be a culture that truly believes that mistakes are part of the process of learning. Well-thought-out efforts that don’t succeed aren’t a mistake, but rather part of the process of elimination in discovering what will work and what will not. The fear of making mistakes is like the fly in the ointment of the 4 Ps. If people fear making a mistake instead of seeing it as a process of trial and error, they won’t believe the plan, they won’t want to be on the team, and they certainly won’t make innovation a priority. What they will ensure is that only the safest ideas are put forward and nothing significantly innovative ever gets done.

Second, the culture has to be a learning culture—an organization that seeks to improve itself through an understanding of its marketplace, customers, and its own strengths and weaknesses. An organization that values developing understanding lays a firm foundation for the 4 Ps and for innovation.

About the Author(s)

Michael Mitchell is president of Mitchell Innovation + Research, a market research and innovation consultancy based in Chicago and Dayton, Ohio. MI+R’s clients primarily consist of Fortune 500 companies and some of the best-known products and brands in the world. Mitchell is a university professor, prolific writer, and speaker on the topic of innovation. He can be reached at: mike@mitchellinnovationandresearch.com or www.mitchellinnovation.com