The word innovation has a very positive connotation. Forging a new path, trailblazing sounds exciting, interesting, vital to growth. All of these ideas are true. In fact, often times innovation is not a nice to have, it is must have. It is not just what businesses and organizations should do in order to thrive, it is what must be done to survive in a highly completable environments, especially in tech.
For instance, during pandemic Google Meet saw an explosive 30x growth in demand within a very short period of time. Just adding more servers to the data centers was not an answer. Lightning fast innovation, doing something that hasn’t been done before was the only choice, thinking outside the box was a must. See the following article.
However, innovation is much easier said than done. Many companies especially very large ones, are not built for innovation. Everything in those companies’ cultures is set it up to make innovation extremely difficult. Businesses tend to like predictability and data-driven decision making. By definition, innovation means doing something that hasn’t been done before, something that can’t be easily predicated. We can only analyze something that already happened, we can look at the past, gather data from some set of events and perform analysis. We cannot analyze something that hasn’t happened. Yet businesses conduct their budget planning on a yearly basis and only feel comfortable making funding decisions based on data analysis, and a well predicted path and a detailed execution plan, essentially a waterfall program planning methodology. Here is exactly what we are doing to do, here how we are going to do it, and here is a step by step execution plan, resource requirements and a timeline. By definition, true innovation doesn’t land itself in this kind of planning. True innovation, requires true agility.
With that said, ability to innovate is one of the greatest predictors of success. Companies that are great at innovation win and those that aren’t won’t survive or thrive in the long run. So what can be done to strengthen the innovation muscles?
I believe, as in many other cases, it has to start at the top. It requires leaders with strong vision. Leaders who can see often several years or even decades ahead and take risks. Leaders who can see the big picture and assess the landscape of the business, where it is headed as well as its comparative landscape. It also requires a culture of trust. We don’t see exactly how we are going to do it, but there is a trust that with strong sponsorship we have the level of expertise and capabilities to deliver on our vision. We don’t have the luxury of data analysis and detailed execution steps far in advance, but we are still willing to make an investment, because we believe in the vision and we trust our team to make it happen. With this mindset what tends to happen is people deliver beyond what was thought possible, since it involves doing something new bringing excitement, energy, and shared ownership. Unfortunately, for many organization this is a wishful thinking and not the reality for the reasons we mentioned above.
So what can program managers do to promote and lead truly innovative programs.
- Start with a vision. Make sure the vision of why we are doing something is very clear. It should be easy to understand why making the investment into a given program is a must. The business case should be very strong.
- Make the alignment with the organizations’ business objectives explicit. For instance, if the organization wants to increase their ability, reliability, improve UX, or reduce manual toil, showing how your program directly ties to those objectives, makes investment (funding) conversations much easier.
- Build partnerships with the right people. There are always people in the organization who are innovators by nature. They love the idea of building something new and fulfilling the vision they believe in. It’s often a personality trait. Seek those people. Talk to them and develop shared understanding of the vision for the program. If you can find these personalities in the leadership of some service teams for instance, these services will make great pilot customers in the future. These leaders will also become champions of the program and will once again make funding decisions easier. Ask these leaders to speak in support of the program, instead of yourself, if the opportunity presents itself, it will make a much greater impression when talking about how the program will benefit services a company provides.
- Start small. Instead of trying to put together a grand multi-year plan that requires a huge investment. Start with an MVP or pilot, something that has a subset of the functionality, but can still be a release candidate that has business value and can be used by a small subset of customers (see the bullet point above for details about the pilot customers) It makes planning much easier, since we are looking at a much shorter time horizon, we are in a better position to look much closer at the implementation details of how we are going to get it done. The budget to deliver that subset of our ultimate north star vision is going to be much smaller. We’ll get a chance to deliver business value faster. We can get valuable feedback and also prove that what we building actually works. We can increase our leaders’ confidence level in making further investments into our program. Breaking the large program into milestones or phases, the funding can also become incremental. For instance, Phase 1: MVP, Phase 2: Add capability A, Phase 2: Add capability B.
Innovation and agility, is one of the greatest measures of business strength. Getting good at it will become even more vital as we face new and greater challenges and changes in the future. Start with a clear vision, start by taking incremental steps and finish strong. Let’s go!!!