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Innovation Wars?

| On 29, Aug 2010

Ellen Domb

Stop the Innovation Wars is the attention-getting title of this month’s Harvard Business Review attempt at controversy by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, both on the faculty at Dartmouth, and co-authors of a new book on innovation, due out in November.  (See  July-Aug. 2010)   What is the Innovation War?   It is the battle between corporate operations groups, responsible for ongoing operations and support of existing products and services, and the teams formed for new initiatives, usually given names like innovation team.   The authors’ description of the powerful, extremely negative reactions to the idea of creating an innovation team with special responsibility for a new strategy and how it gave rise to their research is fascinating, but familiar;   readers of Real Innovation and The TRIZ Journal are likely to ask what is the excitement, and what calls for academic research.

The authors rename the operations groups the Performance Engine of the company, and prescribe a partnership modality, in which the Performance Engine partners with dedicated project teams  tasked with innovation projects.   They present an interesting series of case studies: BMW’s regenerative braking team, West’s (the legal publishing branch of Thomas Reuters) creation of database products, Lucent’s service businesses,  and WD-40’s new dispenser to demonstrate the universality of their proposed method as applied in a product, a service, and a component part. 

Step one of the partnership process is dividing the work between the Performance Engine and the dedicated project team.  One insight that I found quite useful was that it is not just the work to be done and the skills of the people that should be assessed, but also the past working relationships of those people.  If they have always worked in a hierarchical relationship, they may not be able to work in a flat organization.  If they have always worked on projects that have well-defined deliverables, they may not be able to work in an exploratory environment.   And, of course, vice versa:  one example showed how people who had typically worked very independently, or with a small technical support staff, were not well-suited to working in a large, structured team with complex, interdependent roles.   The new organization will also need new metrics of success, new compensation/reward systems, and its own unique culture.    Trimble and Govindarajan task management with creating these elements, but I’ve seen management fail more often than it succeeds as creating a specific culture  – – it seems that the best that management can do is be sure that the metrics and reward systems are not contrary to the desired  cultural elements.

For a short article, they did a good job at illustrating the kinds of problems that will occur in this partnership.  TRIZ readers will recognize the physical contradictions in the situations of loose – tight management, team – individual metrics, and the technical (trade-off) contradictions in the schedule vs. completeness and new technology vs. traditional methods and new suppliers’ creativity vs. traditional suppliers’ reliability, etc.   Disappointingly, the authors did not use any of the insights available from business applications of TRIZ to propose solutions to these contradictions.   Their solutions to the problems of innovation are remarkably un-innovative.   Equally disappointing, they do not present any data or case studies showing that their proposed method work.   Case studies from which the method was derived are interesting, but obviously are available because they were successful for those companies in those circumstances.   The test should be to apply the method to new situations and evaluate its effectiveness, and iterated the method based on both failures and successes.  I am particularly dubious about the effectiveness of changing the names of the operations and innovation teams as a key success factor!

Readers are invited to contribute their case studies and observations, and particularly any methods they have found effective in Real Innovation and TRIZ Journal-reading companies.