Deepti Thomas

My World: Innovation

Innovation Manager. Deloitte

IIM Americas

A few years ago, innovation was little more than a buzz word. Leading thinkers and business gurus were speaking of the need for organizations to be more organized and structured in how they approached innovation; and many took this advice to heart setting up innovation committees, teams and task forces. However, though well intentioned, in many cases it was little more than lip service. While they understood the need for innovation, organizations struggled to be purposeful about it – with the result that innovation efforts seemed disconnected from core ‘value-adding’ activities of the business.
It has been relatively slow in coming, but driven by success stories and extensive media attention, the perception towards innovation within organizations seems to have changed. Not only have organizations begun to see its importance in helping them stay competitive – especially when facing off against more nimble, risk-taking competitors – but collective knowledge on how to think about innovation in more structured ways has increased*
So what does innovation in a large organization entail? Having been part of this world for several years, I believe it is about discovery, incubation and acceleration**.

Discovery: The process of identifying new opportunities is more than getting people together in a room to brainstorm on the “next big thing”. Being purposeful about discovery entails systematically identifying and tracking trends and new ideas, interpreting what they could mean to the organization, and making judgment calls on whether (and when) they warrant further investigation. While the activity lends itself to a lot of creative thinking, it also requires a deep understanding of the organizations strategy, and being closely connected to customer needs.

Incubation: The nurturing of ideas as they evolve into proofs of concept and prototypes, needs judicious investment in terms of time, money, and access to expertise and clients. The philosophy of “Fail forward fast” needs to be coupled with an awareness of our susceptibility to decision biases that may hinder our decisions (e.g. “irrational escalation” where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong).

Acceleration: Translating an idea into a viable, scalable business requires strong entrepreneurial skill sets. It requires the ability to manage complex projects with many moving parts and innovate around many aspects of the business (product systems, profit models, talent models, brands, customer experience etc.)

For those with an interest in business (as one might assume our readers are), career opportunities in innovation range from being part of in house innovation centers to providing innovation consulting as a professional service. I’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides, and find them both to be extremely rewarding experiences – though not without their drawbacks. On the plus side, being in the “innovation” world offers the opportunity to work on new products and services - providing the rush and thrill of being an entrepreneur while retaining the security of a paycheck. However every new idea you follow requires dealing with unchartered territory, with no set path to follow and ever changing ideas of what success could look like.
Having worked with some exceptionally talented people in this space, I believe that it is a career suited for those who like variety, possibilities, generating new ideas, are tolerant of ambiguity and yet can be laser focused on goals. Especially when working with (or within) big organizations, a critical skill to have is the ability to bring people along the journey – who may have differing opinions and pride of ownership.
If you are interested in innovation, but are unsure of the commitment you can make to it – there are several organizations that are “opening up” innovation, and tapping into crowds and expert networks to supplement their efforts (especially around “discovery”). Two well-known platforms for are Innocentive and Open-IDEO. Get started today!

*A few good references to learn more about applying a structured approach to innovation in organizations

The Little Black Book of Innovation – Scott D. Anthony    The 10 Types of Innovation – Larry Keeley  

**Ref: Create Three Distinct Career Paths for Innovators (HBR, Dec. 2009)

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”- Steve Jobs