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Beyond the Idea

By Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble

(St. Martin's Press, 178 pages, $22.99)

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Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. The same applies to innovation initiatives, according to leading experts Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. The two professors at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business in New Hampshire say that, unfortunately, companies allot almost all of their time and energy to that 1 per cent, hunting for the breakthrough idea.

"The real innovation journey, however, lies beyond the idea. It lies in a long, hard journey – from imagination to impact," they write in Beyond the Idea.

Companies may be overconfident about that vital journey because execution is familiar – it's what they do every day. But the authors say that companies often struggle with innovation execution since it's a unique beast. "It requires time, energy, and distinct thinking. Unfortunately, few companies treat it as such. In fact, few companies give it much thought at all," they observe.

Organizations aren't built for innovation execution. They are built for continuing operations – what the authors call the "performance engines." And the problem is that innovation and operations are always and inevitably in conflict. "Innovation promises short-term pain for long-term gain, but the performance engine wants to win now. Innovation requires experimentation; the performance engine demands efficiency. Innovations sometimes fail; the performance engine struggles to forgive," they write.

But the fundamental source of conflict is that the performance engine tries to make every process and every activity as predictable and repeatable as possible. And that, of course, is the antithesis of innovation. With innovation, we are trying to break away from the past. Indeed, the conflict is captured in their definition of an innovation initiative: Any project that is new to your organization and has an uncertain outcome. Not what the performance engine hankers for.

Their research suggests there are three distinct models for effectively executing innovation initiatives.

1. S is for small

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Model S is for small initiatives that can be squeezed into the slack in the existing system. In this model, you take advantage of people's spare time and resources to turn them into part-time innovators, such as when companies tell employees they can devote a portion of their time to the innovation ideas of their own choice.

The problem is scale. It is extremely difficult to co-ordinate these slivers of slack time from a lot of people. So the focus must be on modest, small improvements in people's area of responsibility. The central management challenge is motivation, so that people are inspired to innovate.

2. R is for repeatable

Model R is for initiatives that can be repeatable and predictable. The idea is to tackle a series of similar initiatives in the same way. You are systematizing innovation, breaking it down into small, discrete and repeatable tasks. It's used in fast-moving industries that produce complex, multicomponent products, such as consumer electronics, appliances and motor vehicles.

The innovations are produced by full-time employees in departments like new product development, new service development, or new concept development. They tend to be designers, engineers and market researchers. Companies manage the uncertainty in a series of stages that winnow out initiatives that seem unlikely to be successful. The central management challenge is process management.

3. C is for customized

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Finally, Model C, for customizing innovation, relies on separating incompatible innovation tasks from the day-to-day operations. It handles one unique initiative at a time, and the central management challenge is overseeing the special teams and special plans that must be assembled.

By creating a special team, you can reorganize the way work is done. You can change people's roles and responsibilities, altering structure and hierarchies. This is critical. "You simply don't get breakthrough innovation without breakthrough organizational design," they insist.

In choosing between the models, they suggest you ask:

Can the initiative be done by just a few people using their free time? If so, use Model S.

Is the initiative similar enough to a past initiative that the same people in the same roles can follow the same process? If so, opt for Model R.

In all other cases, use Model C.

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Of course, choosing is just the first step. You must then execute, and that can be particularly tricky with Model C. That's why they devote about two-thirds of the text to that approach. This is a terrific book, deliberately slim for the working manager, with case examples jettisoned for space but still packed with practical insights that can only help you in tackling innovations.


Guelph, Ont.-based executive coach Sylvia Plester-Silk offers lessons for managers from her canine friends in Unleashing Team Potential (On Purpose Consulting, 178 pages, $21.95)

Executive Craig Bouchard and economics professor James Koch offer lessons on leadership, growth and shareholder value in The Caterpillar Way (McGraw-Hill, 361 pages, $29.95), a look at the heavy equipment manufacturer.

In Fish Can't See Water (John Wiley, 297 pages, $48), Kai Hammerich and Richard Lewis explain how corporate management can become blind to the impact of national culture on their growth, explaining that the same national traits that might accelerate growth at one stage of the corporate cycle might derail growth at another.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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