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Can Managers Make Innovation Happen? February 12, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, strategy.
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I’m hearing a lot about innovation these days. It seems that everyone is looking for new breakthrough ideas in products and services in order to grow revenue, differentiate from competition, and establish sustainable profitability. However, waiting for a flash of inspiration or “Eureka” moment is too random and unpredictable for most businesses. They would like to actively innovate, or at least provide an environment where productive innovation is more likely to happen.

What role do managers play in an organization that’s looking for innovation? What can managers do to inspire or foster innovation? I’ve always operated under the assumption that innovation is a creative, “out of box,” right-brain activity that can’t be managed with performance objectives and a schedule. I’m not convinced that you can innovate on-demand. I can’t recall ever attending a scheduled group brainstorming session that led to breakthrough ideas.

Some years ago I visited a peer manager at a different HP site to do some internal benchmarking and look for some best practices that I could bring back to my team. On a monthly dashboard of department metrics this manager included a bar chart showing the number of patent applications proposed by the team. I was astonished that this group of about 30 engineers and managers were averaging 30-40 applications every month. I was especially curious because this was a software quality team, and it wasn’t clear to me what part of our work could be patentable.

It turned out that the patent applications up to that time had nothing to do with software quality, or software testing, or anything remotely related to the products we were working on. Most of them seemed to be new applications of existing HP products. There may have been some occasional good ideas for new products in there somewhere, but I can almost guarantee that none of those patent applications were new, or unique, or valuable enough to be actually filed by the HP legal staff.

At the time I wasn’t eager to challenge the HP manager who was hosting my visit, but I still wonder what they were trying to do. The energy put into patent proposals didn’t seem to provide any direct contribution to the department’s objectives. I suppose it’s possible that the team brought more creativity and innovation to their work in software quality as a result of their patent efforts, but I couldn’t tell how that positively affected their other performance measures. I don’t think this was a good example of inspiring innovation.

I’m still not sure what managers can do to make innovation happen, but I think managers have a lot of influence over the work environment, and that can create conditions where innovation is more likely to happen:

1. Managers can communicate the business’s strategic interest in innovation, and help channel the team’s creativity to address specific needs (e.g., new products, new processes to reduce cost or improve quality).

2. Managers can identify those people in the team who are inherently creative and encourage them. Good ideas can certainly come from anywhere, but the fact is that some people are better able to think outside the box and make unexpected connections.

3. Managers can keep an open mind about new ideas and provide sufficient time and resources to evaluate them. This can be hard when resources are limited and the innovation is unfamiliar and risky. On the other hand, you shouldn’t expect the team to be innovative when there’s no chance their ideas will be given an opportunity to prove themselves.

I don’t think of myself as an innovative person who can generate creative ideas. I do think of myself as someone who understands the value of innovation to the business, and I want to do what I can to enable others to innovate effectively.

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