Why Innovation Maturity Matters

For many companies, the desire to be more innovative is driven by a strategic issue – flat-lined growth, competitive threats, industry upheaval, etc. Senior leadership therefore develops a strategic plan for innovation, appoints a corporate innovation leader, and provides that leader with the resources deemed necessary and appropriate for success.

This may seem sensible…and it is. Yet most such efforts fail, often repeatedly. Over the past decade, I’ve watched the vast majority of innovation programs, and corporate innovation leaders, quietly disappear within 2-3 years of inception (often much sooner).

The most common mistake: leadership doesn’t factor their organization’s Innovation Maturity level into the equation.

This is important because for almost any large organization today (even the “innovative” ones), the ability to innovate consistently across the business, at both local and global scale, is patchwork at best. A culture of innovation may exist in certain pockets (such as within the engineering culture of many tech firms), or a declared group may already be doing great work on specific innovation projects. But this is very different from being an organization that understands, across the board, how to innovate together.

Based on nearly 20 years of experience helping companies become more innovative, at Imaginatik we’ve been able to define four stages of innovation maturity, from Initiated (just starting out), to Systematized (early norms for standard practices have appeared), Embedded (innovation practices have been integrated with normal business operations), and finally Optimized (innovation is a primary driver of value-creation across the firm).

The “correct” moves to build innovation capability vary wildly with maturity level. For example, when entering the Initiated phase, a full-blown strategic plan for innovation is overkill. Although senior executive alignment is critical, there is no way to design the best on-the-ground processes and governance structures without first undertaking quite a bit of trial-and-error. Organizations that attempt to foist an innovation culture on the organization from the top-down almost always find implicit resistance, and typically abandon their efforts in frustration.

Yet, a well-developed innovation strategy becomes extremely useful in the latter stages of the maturity curve. By this point, leadership has gained enough experience with “what works” in the trenches to discern the more permanent patterns of workable innovation process that unite teams and divisions rather than creating confusion. Furthermore, as innovation efforts move toward an Embedded state, it becomes much more possible for leadership to successfully identify the right strategic hot spots for innovation focus and investment. Typically, these are very different from the hot spots executives would have selected in the early days. It turns out that thinking about innovation, and planning for it deliberately, are both quite distinct from optimizing operations within the current business.

Many factors contribute to the total picture of an organization’s innovation maturity. And, of course, the maturity framework is just another tool for smart planning and execution, rather than a rigid scorecard. Nevertheless, leaders ignore their company’s innovation maturity level at their own peril.

If you’d like to discuss these concepts in more detail, please leave a comment below, or feel free to reach out to us for a chat.

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