How to build your innovation capability

By Rowan Gibson

When I go into a large company, one of the first questions I usually ask is this: Does your organization have a worldwide innovation infrastructure where anyone, anywhere can get access to the cash, the talent, and the management support they need to turn their ideas into market success stories? No prizes for guessing the answer. Most companies claim they want to encourage creativity, risk taking, and rule breaking, but what you invariably find is that their management infrastructure and corporate culture actually inhibit these things. Talk to successful innovators in any large company, and you will probably hear a familiar story: “I succeeded despite the system.” But if would-be innovators can only succeed in an organization despite the system—if they have to fight their way heroically through a minefield to push their ideas forward—then by definition, innovation is not a systemic capability in that organization, nor is it a core value that is deeply ingrained in the corporate culture.

For innovation to become a core competence and a tangible cultural value, there has to be a substantial degree of internal consistency between processes, metrics, reward structures, rhetoric, and top management behavior—and it is precisely this synchronicity that is lacking inside most companies.

Let’s take structure. In the majority of organizations, innovation is still forced to live in a disconnected “silo” like R&D, New Product Development, a Skunk Works, an incubator, or a New Ventures division, where it neither involves nor infects the rest of the organization. By their very nature, these enclaves lead a solitary existence, operating as an adjunct to the real work of the company, and in my experience they produce very few ideas that ever make a big impact on a company’s profits.

If we want to create the kind of structure that is required for opening up innovation broadly to the organization and to people outside it, we need to think about the social systems or institutional structures that have proven to be most conducive to innovation—universities, cities, industry clusters like Silicon Valley, or, most recently, the Web itself.

This article continues on Blogging Innovation, edited by Braden Kelley.

Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author and an expert on radical innovation. He is also one of the world’s most in-demand public speakers. Rowan’s books have been translated into over 20 languages. His latest book, Innovation to the Core, is published by Harvard Business School Press. Rowan is now partnering with Imaginatik to offer advanced “Innovation-as-a-Service” solutions to the world’s leading corporations. For more information, visit Meet both Rowan and Braden at the Innovation Leaders Forum Feb. 16 in New York City.

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