Knowledge and Innovation: 21 Innovation Principles That Benefit from a KM Perspective
Knowledge management often sounds like a controlling function, but it can also be a liberating one. Seeking knowledge, examining problems from different points of view and synthesizing content and context to create new, often unique possibilities requires an openness that the process view of innovation fails to provide. A knowledge-driven view of innovation starts with permission: permission to be creative, permission to fail, permission to explore. Knowledge and innovation need each other.
Serious Insights gathered its list of knowledge and innovation components. The components and their descriptions are derived from actual innovation experiences at companies like Western Digital, Hughes Aircraft and Microsoft.
Think of this list as a set of contextual principals to complement whatever process or approach your organization applies to innovation. In our experience, this policy and practice guidance often gets lost is discipline and process, and as a result, innovations either fail to occur or end up as incremental and unfulfilling. To take the shackles of the innovation process, think of the outcome not as a particular process or product, but as a learning experience where new ideas emerge from the activity of exploration and seeking, where knowledge and innovation create a space for the evolution of an idea, not the end state of the idea.
The business, its objectives and its mission create constraints and expectations which flow throughout the organization. When looking to innovate, don’t add additional constraints or expectations. When an idea emerges that needs to be productionized or launched, the organizational infrastructure can then reassert itself.
21 Innovation Ideas and their Knowledge Components
1. Lead with permission not incentives. While incentives can be powerful motivators in many roles, innovation often doesn’t benefit from incentives. Incentives rarely target the right behavior—they are too narrow, too specific. Innovation requires broad permission to challenge existing ideas, to explore new areas and to fail. Knowledge component: understand the factors that people perceive as holding them back from participating in innovative activity.
2. Recognize risk. Early in any innovation endeavor, start by identifying the risks to career, to the project, to the company. Risks evolve. Check back periodically to see if the categories or risk severity changes. The biggest risk in innovation is often the disconnect between the permission-based innovation project and the momentum of the organization as it tries to squelch a sensed disruption much as the body wards off invading disease vectors. Knowledge component: risk inventory.
3. Be willing to fail. Failure is often seen as a learning opportunity, but too many who espouse that position don’t provide practice support for the learning. Organizations should develop a lessons learned process, with one version specifically aimed at capturing the lessons related to failure. These lessons should include political issues, financial issues, human resource issues, technological issues and project-related areas like not properly setting expectations or surfacing assumptions not recognized at the project’s onset. Simplicable lists 77 Types of Project Failure in an August 2016 post. Knowledge component: develop and maintain a failure lessons learned database and track positive outcomes of failures over time.
4. Ignore signals and keep going. Knowledge in innovation often includes signal tracking. Very often in innovation, signals, be they financial, market or technology, may suggest, perhaps even suggest vehemently, that the innovative undertaking is a waste of money and it isn’t going to work out. Many successful innovations succeed despite negative climates, in some cases, because they leverage the underlying weakness of a model that might show good growth (such as the arrival of the iPhone in a world that didn’t need another phone design because it had not grasped the combination of ease of use and integrated features). Alternatively, the signals might be wrong because they aren’t asking the right questions. Keep in mind that many times an innovation shifts the landscape so much that many of metrics and signals also get disrupted. Knowledge component: track organizations, local and global signals related to the innovation, but also develop relationship maps that illustrate the strength of those signals to the innovative work underway..
5. Find air cover. Knowing the politics of innovation is important, especially within organizations. If you aren’t the CEO, then you probably need someone who believes in the idea and the team— and is willing to expend political capital to let people explore new areas, even if they prove uncomfortable. Knowledge component: develop an organizational political and customer map and clearly identify supporters and those who will provide support even under political stress.
6. Identify chances for success. A large part of learning requires paying attention. When trying to innovate, be open to projects that clearly have a chance for success. These projects sometimes get called “low hanging fruit.” Just because something is easier than something else, it doesn’t necessarily imply the innovation will be less impactful. Also, innovation often evolves incrementally, so an early success that builds toward a bigger vision is good for testing markets and teams. Knowledge component: develop success criteria that helps identify quick wins.
7. Build a talented team. Hiring a talented team starts with defining the skills and personality profiles of the team that will drive the innovation. This list can be a guide to skills, proclivities and perspectives used to evaluate team member applications and recruiting. Look for people who recognize the vision, and who care about what you’re doing. Knowledge component: develop job descriptions that include what people need to know, not just what they should do.
8. Develop business expertise. Innovation does require business expertise, and that starts with a definition of the expertise required for a particular project. Each project requires its own expertise definition so we won’t go into detail here, but early in the project ask, What will people need to know about technology, processes, regulations, etc. to succeed in this project? Even if an innovation proves wildly disruptive, it will need to be launched and nurtured into the existing world, and people who know, for instance, how to launch and market a product, will bring valuable expertise to the project. Knowledge component: create a knowledge inventory for what the business needs to know in order to be successful. Set time and quality goals for each item. Engage in programs and hiring that moves the organization to its goals.
9. Defend against scope creep. Projects that get too big before their time typically fail because there are too many things to do and not enough time, money or people. Innovative projects often don’t deliver anything like the legendary innovations that have become commonplace. Early computers, early cellular phones and early online shopping experiences differ by orders of magnitude from current offerings. Innovation should not seek the disruptive end product at the outset, but the disruptive idea that creates room for the idea to evolve. Knowledge component: take time to develop an innovation environment maps as context for the innovation investment. Know where a project’s edges are before the team reaches them.
10. Persevere The ability to persevere should be considered a key performance indicator for those serving in innovation projects. If a team is filled with people who initially launch into a project with great enthusiasm, and over time, the energy level wanes, the team may not have the perseverance required to deliver the innovation. Look to things like meeting attendance, deliverable quality and increases in time-off to determine if the team has what it takes for the long haul. Knowledge component: capture metrics that identify early when teams or team members disengage.
11. Identify stress. Like perseverance, stress should also be monitored as a key performance indicator. People who experience stress, poor sleep and other abnormal mental states may not perform as well. Think of stress and perseverance as balancing indicators. A dedicated team need not be an unhealthy one. Knowledge component: capture metrics that identify early when teams or team members demonstrate unhealthy levels of stress (also required a defintion of unhealthy stress in light of what measurements are available).
12. Anticipate the innovation bubble’s collapse. A side benefit of paying attention, and of learning to let go, is being able to anticipate when an innovation space becomes commonplace, or when the innovative idea’s time has been passed. Perhaps you were working at Motorola on PowerPC future innovations at the time Apple decided to switch to Intel chips. Over the history of computing, the market has seen dramatic shifts in market leadership based on innovations that become overwhelming, and tides shift. We are currently watching the battle between AMD and Intel over high-performance computing innovations. Knowledge component: create regular reflection sessions that evaluate how well the innovative direction is staying ahead of its market.
13. Mine the past and the present (orthogonally). Many ideas already exist, or at least pieces of them do. This isn’t a case of ignoring the past means reliving it, it means reinventing—and that means wasting time. Good innovation leverages existing ideas when it makes sense. Pride of ownership and doing everything from scratch may lead to something more integrated or more elegant, but in the meantime, the competition is combining and recombining existing ideas into an innovation that may be enough to create the space for evolution.
As for the present, don’t just study things you think matter, but look to the periphery, to orthogonal ideas that might offer new insights into the problem space or new constructs for the solution. Knowledge component: create a repository if it doesn’t already exist, and apply metadata to help make the past ideas and current projects discoverable.
14. Manage disruption and change. The systematic implementation of something new, something disruptive, is a knowledge management challenge more so than the innovation itself—though it should be seen as a continuity through the project and not a shift from innovation thinking to awareness and implementation. At some point, an innovation may become so successful and so ingrained that it needs different types of skills and mindsets to scale it, but the first movement from idea to introduction should be part of the innovation team’s thinking. If they can’t sell the idea, it will never find its footing. Knowledge component: implement knowledge-based change management that includes internal analysis of project phase states and needs for transformation into an operational state.
15. Plan for discontinuity. While knowledge often builds on historical context, sometimes it needs new vocabulary or a new way to describe the problem. Don’t try to squeeze new ideas into old frameworks just because people know the old frameworks. Use analogy and metaphor to make connections, but if you create something new and it needs a new language, then invent one. Knowledge component: coach for recognizing the need for emergent vocabulary and frameworks.
16. Realize even if you don’t ask for permission, you will eventually ask for permission. Even in an environment that leads with permission, at some point, a project may hit a spot where it needs to go ask permission to charge through an obstacle or leverage a newly discovered opportunity. Innovation exists in the real world, even if it can feel like fantasy as the adrenaline of invention pumps through the team. When reality hits, embrace it, do what needs done and keep going. Knowledge component: regularly discuss levels of support and a map of where inflection points may arrive.
17. Value learning. If tying knowledge management and innovation together achieves nothing else it should imbue the project with the value of learning. Innovation is not about execution and key performance indicators, it is about synthesis and creativity, about seeking new combinations to create new solutions, or applying existing solutions to new problems. All of those activities require a curious mind willing to take in new data, new information and to not be content with absorbing existing knowledge, but inspired to create new knowledge. Knowledge component: keep innovation tied to investments in continuous learning.
18. Collaborate. Collaboration is a process that must be learned. Collaboration often fails because there are no ground rules established. People share things, but they do so haphazardly in whatever tool meet the needs of the moment, rather than the needs of the team. People who lead innovation should establish collaboration rules of engagement on the first day. Most organizations procure a plethora of tools. Don’t let the menu get in the way of making a choice. Restricting collaboration tools will help people focus on thinking creatively and create the shared space necessary to track fast-moving fields. Knowledge component: share a collaborative approach and use knowledge feedback to keep it on track and to adapt as necessary.
19. Be prepared to be judged. All people involved in innovation need to know very personally that they will be judged. Individuals not only need to know that, but they also need to understand how they will react when being judged positively and negatively. Take some time early in a project to let each team member consider his or her own reactions to judgement—and then schedule some time with the team so they can discuss how they will react to each other when they are being judged. Also keep in mind that being recognized for success is also a judgment. Knowledge component: list the areas likely to be judged, discuss them and be prepared for responses. Practicing being judged within the team can take the sting out of judgment from others. Also ask: ‘what would we need to think about it we are successful that we haven’t planned for already?’
20. Bet everything. Knowledge management implies the eventual building of an execution model for any innovation, be it process, product or service. Employing knowledge management implies knowing where you want to go, even if you aren’t sure of the path or the ultimate deliverable at the destination. KM also suggests that individuals and teams know how deep their resources go and how far they are willing to stretch those resources. Innovators often say they are willing to “bet everything” on something they believe in. Each individual needs to understand personally what everything means. Knowledge component: collaborative develop a list of how far people are willing to go for a project.
21. Let go of…ideas, assertions and assumptions. A fundamental principle of knowledge management is accepting and mastering unlearning as much as learning. When an idea becomes irrelevant, an assertion is proved false, an assumption invalidated, it is important to let go of them quickly and adopt a mindset and assumptions free of the baggage and constraints of irrelevance and proven failures. Letting go does not mean forgetting, it means learning to avoid the powerful drive to continue down an invested path when you know the path was started from an untenable premise. Letting go is very different than the previous elements perseverance and ignoring signals. Both of those ideas proceed for the assumption of uncertainty and unknown. Current indicators, for instance, may not be relevant to the disruption—or in the case of perseverance, something proves harder to code than expected. Nothing says it can’t be done, it’s just taking more time to do than planned. On the other hand, if a new discovery of electron behavior at nano levels invalidates a design that isn’t working, then no amount of ignoring signals or perseverance will change the physics. Knowledge component: develop and maintain a mind map or list of the ideas, assertions and assumptions driving an innovation investment. Also capture and keep current a list of ideas, assertions and assumptions from individuals or the institution that could get in the way of the innovation coming to fruition.
Learn how to innovate (and teach others)
Much innovation takes place through structured processes (process knowledge) and serendipitous events (situational knowledge) in learning on the job. Knowing how an organization views innovation is critical to succeeding. People who ignore internal process and go, rogue, even brilliant people with great potential for innovation often fail because they refuse to understand the dissonance between their approach and that of the organization. If you start with the organization’s approach, permission is often granted at the more detailed level to imbue a project with its own irreverence and swagger, but that is earned through paying dues to process.
Innovation can also involve personal learning. That is one of the reasons Serious Insights offers its Agile Thinking workshop. Not all practitioners of innovation are as open as they might think. Techniques like scenario planning and the recognition and inclusion of uncertainty can help unlatch the locks that keep thinking more rigid. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, “humans can be extremely rational in ordinary circumstances. The minute you give them an MBA, though, they start using these forecasts and these financial tools in ways that contradict their own behavior.” Innovation requires rational thinking, and perhaps irrational thinking, but if the stringent tools of financial management get applied as taught to quantitative MBA students, they will suck the air out of the inspiration. Agile Thinking seeks to help people unlearn the irrational constraints they internalize that force them to see all problems through the lens of a spreadsheet.
Learning how to innovate means learning how to balance between persecution and acceptance, between meeting objectives and undermining assumptions, between process and chaos.