Does being process driven stifle innovation?

Three people in an office, two sat watching a women who is stood holding something.

There’s a long list of innovations that have – in many ways – transformed industries, the way we live our lives and even the future of our planet.

A non-exhaustive list could include:

  • Electric cars: calling time on the internal combustion engine
  • Netflix: From renting videos/DVDs to streaming
  • The Internet: something we’re almost unable to live without
  • Banking: from checks to ATMs and online payment
  • The iPhone: heralding an industry of mobile applications and games
  • Gaming: From arcade to home video games and onto virtual reality/mixed reality and gamification learning.

But, as much as innovation can bring positive benefits, it has its fair share of downsides.

Innovation – risks and unintended consequences

Take the Internet: much of it has been great for humanity. However, certain issues such as the rise in fake news and conspiracy theories, being hacked and cyber bullying might be called the unintended consequences of innovation.

In the early stages of innovation, organizations have to decide what they’re willing to tolerate when things go wrong. For example, accidents involving self-driving cars can be both tragic in human terms and pose a risk to the technology being adopted. But does that mean abandoning the concept altogether?

Even trailblazing companies need to reduce the amount of risk in innovation and iterate over time. The idea, for example, of re-usable rockets for space exploration was unheard of, but SpaceX is now doing it.

Organizations wanting to innovate need to have a methodical approach. That doesn’t mean having too much rigour but at least something in place to guide the process.

How does a process-driven approach complement innovation?

Once companies’ research and development incubators have an innovative idea, things start kicking into gear and you need to ask: how could this change the world? What need is it meeting? Will it help a customer somewhere?

But if there are no “guardrails” – checks, balances and regulation – around the innovation process, there is a risk that innovation could end up like Theranos Inc – the consumer healthcare company – whose supposedly revolutionary blood testing technology turned out to be a fraud.

How does ITIL 4’s continual improvement model apply to innovation?

The concepts contained in ITIL® 4’s continual improvement model go hand-in-hand perfectly with the process of innovation.

Its guidance is very specific about the value of having a process to make improvements or create something new.

First, you establish what you’re trying to do and identify the problem you’re trying to solve.

Once agreed on that, you assess where you are now, plan your key performance indicators and iterate from there.

Managing innovation effectively

There are a number of areas that are critical when managing innovation:

  • Culture: creating a learning culture in which it’s OK to fail and recognizing that breakthroughs don’t happen right away
  • Ensuring a Minimal Viable Product (MVP): perfection isn’t necessarily the goal but finding something from which to iterate
  • Objectives and Key Results (OKR): deciding what success looks like
  • Iteration approach, agile and retrospectives: asking what went well, what you could do better and do this for each iteration
  • Risk tolerance: agree on your comfort level as a company
  • Outreach, communication & education: both internal and external marketing so everyone knows the goals for the team.

There’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure on companies to innovate today. However, in some cases there are not enough boundaries.

While you can’t be too rigid and process things “to death”, you need something in place so, when something goes wrong, there are protections.

And there is comfort in the fact that you can also iterate the process itself. If a process no longer makes sense, you’re not obliged to keep it.

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