Innovation is hard. Trials fail, vendors over promise, the ROI doesn’t materialize. It can reflect badly on you as the leader. But you still have to keep at it; the drumbeat to do ‘innovation’ is relentless. In some cases, a lack of innovation can equate to eventual business death.
One way to help ease the pain of unmet expectations is to focus on building your teams’ capabilities through innovation.
Each time you try a new technology or process, a key outcome should be to learn and gain new skills. This can be simple, such as learning a new programming language. The project might develop capability around a process, such as a method for problem resolution. Or, you may have a goal to acquire completely new knowledge – robotics, AI, quantum computing, etc. By focusing on capabilities, your teams use their new skills for further innovations, transformations, or to support more conventional projects.
Innovation projects are an opportunity to test an individual in a project manager role – technology pilots are long enough to be a good trial, and hard enough to provide someone with experience as a leader. Good project management skills are difficult to develop – there are few opportunities to train new project leaders, but innovation pilots can be ideal scenarios. If you do use an untried project manager, you should make sure the person has extra support from other leaders, including formal mentoring throughout the project.
Using innovation is a great way to emphasize continuous learning. Those who work on innovation projects should understand that they have to study to be effective. This mindset will spill over to those that aren’t on an innovation project; they will work to improve their own skills to demonstrate why they should be on the next innovation project. Emphasizing learning for everyone can spur more new ideas and help perfect your next project.
Your next round of innovation will have a better chance of success if your teams understand that these types of projects always bring surprises and that those surprises are often due to lack of knowledge or understanding. Learning is part of the process – and overpreparation is never a bad thing. Its axiomatic that someone will say “I wish I had known that earlier” sometime during the project. Preparation therefore means improving your team’s capabilities early to minimize risk. If you are doing serial innovation projects, then the previous capabilities your team has gained represents a hedge for future projects.
In summary, helping stoke curiosity and encouraging learning can bring outsized results to your innovation work.