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Why You Need an Innovation Intent

by Guest Writter
Soren Kaplan, Founder, InnovationPoint

Most corporate visions and missions sound alarmingly alike: “Become the number one provider of blah, blah, blah.” These generic, broad-based goals might rev up sales teams, but they do little to spark ingenuity. Perhaps the worst thing a company can do is give “innovation marching orders” without any guideposts. That’s when the focus gets lost, teams spin their wheels, and innovation culture gets crushed.

The solution?  You Must Create Your Innovation Intent

Here’s the goal: Frame the way you want to change the world, and make it about the customer. An innovation intent should focus on making a big difference for those you serve. Trying to create positive change in the world for your customers, each and every day, is a much better motivator. Having an innovation intent is critically important for gaining focus. Without a grounding in your specific business, the definition of innovation for the organization remains too open to broad interpretation. It’s one thing to tell people to “go innovate.” It’s another to tell people you want specific types of innovation that deliver measurable results.

Yet, an innovation intent isn’t limited to just the company. Each and every business function can also have its own innovation intent. Recognizing this is important, since not everyone interacts with external customers. Some groups might support internal customers—other functions or groups in the organization. Innovating how to serve internal customers is just as important, because making those groups more effective can ultimately have a positive impact on the external customer.

I hear similar statements from executives within internal support functions that sounds like this: “My company says that innovation is a strategic imperative, but I’m in HR and I have no idea what that means for me.” I could easily substitute “HR” with “IT” or “Legal” or “Finance.” These shared support functions often struggle to translate their company’s innovation imperatives—which they assume are always oriented toward new product or service development for customers.

With an innovation intent at the functional level, it becomes possible to rally an entire department around creating new forms of value. Here are some examples of innovation intent statements that can do just that:

Finance: To deliver financial insight that drives strategic business decisions, new market opportunities, and the innovation process.

HR: To recruit and grow top talent that shapes the future of our company and that transforms the industry.

IT: To provide tools and services that deliver insight for employees and that accelerate innovation and optimize the customer experience.

Without the focus an innovation intent provides, people tend to think innovation belongs to someone else (such as research and development) and assume it isn’t part of their job. Lack of a thoughtfully defined innovation intent also makes it difficult for leaders to create specific programs, processes, metrics, and rewards that shape values and behavior, because specific expectations and measures of success usually aren’t clear beyond the call for “more ideas.”

And it gets worse. Sometimes leadership says it wants a culture of innovation and then makes innovation a business imperative but leaves results open to happenstance. Vague directives of this kind can actually have the opposite effect on the company’s culture. Leaders do things, consciously or unconsciously, that shape the experiences of those around them. Those experiences drive assumptions, beliefs, and behavior.

Want new behavior that leads to innovation? First, put a stake in the ground regarding your innovation intent. Leaders at Intuit did just that when they said they wanted to “improve our customers’ financial lives so profoundly they can’t imagine going back to the old way.” But Intuit went one step further, to the second step, and reinforced its innovation intent with some very specific employee experiences. For example, the company physically brings customers into its offices to mix things up. Intuit’s monthly “customer office hours” provide all employees, from the software engineer to the HR manager to the financial analyst, with the opportunity to see, hear, and talk to real live customers. The focus is on bringing customers—including their needs, desires, and pain points—directly into the organization. Intuit is a great example of a company that designs employee experiences that are directly connected to its innovation intent.

An intentional, specific innovation intent helps people see how innovation connects to what they do and how they do it. For some, innovation may result from incremental process improvements. For others, it may involve designing the next generation of products and services. There’s no one right answer, but everyone should view the importance and relevance of innovation through a unique, individual lens.

About the Author

Soren Kaplan is the author of the best-selling and award-winning book Leapfrogging, an affiliated professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC’s Marshall School of Business, a leading keynote speaker, and the founder of InnovationPoint. As a leading expert in disruptive innovation, innovation culture, and strategic change, he works with Disney, NBCUniversal, Kimberly-Clark, Colgate-Palmolive, Hershey, Red Bull, Medtronic, Roche, Philips, Cisco, Visa, Ascension Health, among others.  See more at http://www.leapfrogging.com/

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