To work with small groups of smart people to develop products and ideas which large organisations would not be able to deliver within their existing structure.
Personally, I’m all for these facilities and I know for a fact that many are spawning great ideas (hopefully enough to keep their sponsors happy). Innovation functions which operate efficiently are picking up where research and development functions and propositional designers have failed over the last decade.
The silos of the future
These functions can be a brilliant way of introducing a pipeline of new ideas into a business but there is a problem which is all too often overlooked in favour of the next shiny thing. Without having an overall architectural vision and working hard to make new developments a part of the overall business and technology infrastructure, innovation functions run the risk of creating the silos of the future.
We often look at legacy business and technologies with a smirk as we see stove-piped pieces of product-led technology and operational support which seemingly have no view of shared capabilities and functionality. These often represent the hangover of a series of M&A activities spanning the past few decades. While many of these business lines can be profitable, this is often thanks to the very high margin business they run. The cost of supporting these legacy systems is typically very high and requires specific expertise that’s hard to come by. They also represent a large technical debt which increases the complexity of future change.
Unfortunately, without an appropriate level of planning, each new proposition runs the risk of standing alone within your company’s ecosystem. This is likely to counter any positive revenue impact from the propositional development and lead to a large mediation programme to “tidy things up” in the future. Today’s innovation becomes tomorrow’s legacy all too quickly.
Just enough architecture
In terms of mitigating against this, architecture (both business and technical) is a key consideration but it is important to be pragmatic when delivering this. The agile concept of “just enough architecture” is an important one here. It will vary between businesses but success will come from finding the optimal amount of information to gather to ensure change is done well. Not so much that you have teams of people spewing out requirements documentation, but also enough that it is not merely an afterthought.
By including analysis of key business and architectural objectives you should be able to think through some high level scenarios which show interaction between key actors in your proposed solution. An application overview, with key coupling points can follow this and will allow for future flexibility around integration and expansion.
A good old fashioned business case?
In addition to assessing the “do-ability” of concepts being developed through the innovation function, it is important to make sure teams adequately reflect on whether they should bother developing them at all. Of course, this question isn’t new, and has been the main point of a good old fashioned business case for many years.
I’m not proposing you produce a three hundred page board document with the ins and outs of every growth scenario, but I do think that, even though you’re developing innovative ideas, you should challenge yourself with some key questions and make sure key stake holders agree. If you don’t know the answer to these, I’d suggest stopping and taking stock is a pretty good idea;
- Who is this for?
- How do we know they want it?
- How much is it going to cost if we a) prototype this, b) develop and launch this?
- How will we know if this is a success?
- How does this fit into our existing enterprise landscape?
Conversely, for every innovation function which could do with adding a commercial focus, there are others which are incredibly astute and will look to bin projects if they can’t show a return within a year. While these functions are far better at removing dead wood than traditional change functions, there still needs to be some careful planning around how the solutions work within the organisation as a whole.
For innovation functions to truly deliver positive and tangible change into businesses, there needs to be a refocussing from the short termism and bauble chasing which some have fallen victim too, and a reflection on the value of solid business planning and architecture.
If you get these things right, the cool things you create might just be of enduring value to the business as well.
This article first appeared in The C Suite, March 2017