Does Innovation Need a Simpler Process?

During my checkered-past, I spent several decades as a soccer official, including a few years as the National Director of Referee Assessment for the United States Soccer Federation. Early in my career, I had the privilege of working with the late Ken Aston, a FIFA referee who had been in charge of officials at four World Cups. An expert in the application of the Laws of the Game, Ken was the inventor or the red and yellow card system used to apply discipline during the match. I assisted Ken during a training clinic for a group of soccer officials. As the referee-students debated application of the Laws in great detail, Mr. Aston stopped the group and made a salient observation, “Gentlemen, soccer is a very simple game. It is YOU who make it complicated!”

I believe Ken’s admonition can be applied to the hundreds of thousands of books, white papers, articles, web sites, and such that try to explain innovation. The members of one blog, for instance, have spent several years trying to define innovation. To quote another expert, the great jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, who said, “If you have to ask what jazz is; you’ll never know.”

Perhaps we make the innovation process too complicated.

In an article “So What Did Lego Do, Anyway?”, in PDMA VISIONS, the staff of the magazine drew on a presentation by Dr. David Robertson of the Wharton School, at last year’s PDMA Annual Conference. Dr. Robertson cited that Lego almost went bankrupt by focusing on the “innovation engine” rather than on the system that guides the engine. The engine was “like a rocket-car without a steering wheel … like such a car, the end of such a ride is destined to be disastrous.”  He recommended a “steering wheel” — a guidance system that addresses three questions:

1.  Position:  Where are you now?

2.  Direction:  Where do you want to go?

3.  Controls:  How will you get there?

To quote from the article, “For a business, this means having a clear understanding of project and portfolio status on a real-time basis, having a clear perspective about how the innovations are linked to the overall strategy and relative priorities and having the management system that could manage the powerful innovation engine that they created.”

Once Lego revised its management approach, between 2007 and 2010, “Lego grew revenues by an average of 25 percent and profits by an average annual growth rate of 50 percent.”

Prior to forming SmartOrg in 2000, my colleagues and I were directors or principals of SDG (Strategic Decisions Group), an organization known for implementing strategic decision-making processes at major global companies. Their very successful Dialog Decision Process often was initiated by asking four questions around the vision for the project:

1.  What are we (the project team) going to do?

2.  Why are we doing this?

3.  How will we know if we are successful?

4.  What could go wrong?

Bottom line: whether it is soccer, innovation or strategic decision making, success will be fostered by “keeping it (the process) simple.”  In Einstein’s oft-quoted advice, we should “make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Reference: PDMA VISIONS, Issue 1, 2012, No. 1, pages 24-25 www.pdma.org