Strong Point’s Leadership Rule #11: Maintain an Active Innovation Lab

There’s an undeniable correlation between Innovation and Leadership. Market leaders in any industry are innovators in some regard. Innovation is linked to growth. Growth leads to and sustains leadership position, be it individual or corporate.

Defining innovation and quantifying the link between innovation and leadership, and growth is fodder for consistent thought and research. It is reassuring to know that our own government, through the US Census Bureau, works to study and more deeply understand this link since innovation is also a key component of overall economic growth. Innovation plays an important role in increased productivity as a nation, and rising living standards for the people in it. This economic growth begins, in my opinion, with individual leaders, who then grow teams that spawn the growth in the companies and communities surrounding them.

Many people think of product development when they think of innovation. A March 7th, 2016 article in reviews the progress and activities of Innovation Labs at Lowes, IBM Research and Autodesk Pier 9. In the article, Lowes Innovation Lab designed a 3D Printer. The IBM Innovation Lab references a robot who can take you on a walking tour of the facility.

Yet, innovation comes in many forms. Intellectual, Process and Cultural innovations often occur in conjunction with or completely separate from technological and/or product innovation. There are many types of innovation beyond product innovation. These include:

  • Innovation that introduces a New Service that is new or considerably improved,
  • Process Innovation comprising the implementation of a new or a significantly enhanced production or delivery method,
  • Supply Chain Innovation which transforms the sourcing of input products from the market and the delivery of output products to customers and
  • Marketing Innovation which involves new methods of marketing with advancements in product design, packaging, promotion or pricing, among others.

Reference pages 766-788 of the International Journal of Human Resources Management, that talks about Empirical evidence from UK companies, with regard to leadership style, organizational culture and performance ( [3]-Ogbonna, E. and Harris, L. (2000)).

Innovators think and work differently to create new paradigms for business operations. It’s a proven fact that innovative processes are intimately linked with organizational dynamics. I like the way authors Decker, Haltiwanger, Jarmin, and Miranda, explain in their CARRA Working Paper Series, that innovation enables businesses to reallocate labor and capital away from low productivity activities and functions, toward high productivity ones.

Accenture conducted a survey five years or so ago, that reported that almost 90 percent of business leaders believe that innovation is a priority. The need and demand for innovation is ever-increasing. One way, to meet this demand, is to maintain an active Innovation Lab.

My career started near the advent of personal computers and I came up, professionally, in a time of incredible innovation. I am one of those professionals who often associate innovation with product development. I worked for Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel Corporation, at the time when companies like Microsoft and universities like MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) had think labs. These think labs had parachute ceilings, shag carpets and bean bag chairs on which you could lay down, and look-up and brainstorm in the middle of the day. I distinctly remember walking down the hallways of an MIT think-tank and noticing the hanging mobiles, the twister toys in the hands of engineers, and the casual, unstructured environment that gave rise to the creative energy and ideas in me and everyone else who entered the environment. These think-tank, innovation labs, by design, made you feel alive and open and able to not only seek, but to understand new concepts and ways of working. It was exciting to witness and feel part of such innovation.

Through Strong Point’s work, I’ve talked about implementing Leadership and Business Development Skill Labs in Rule #8: Work to be Great at How You Relate and in Rule #7: Use Your Mirrors. Know Your Impact, as examples. Strong Point Strategy, focuses its work on helping companies advance and transform through the disciplines of Business Architecture; Enterprise Technology development, implementation and optimization; Program and Project Management; Business Analysis and Process Improvement and Organizational Change Strategy, Planning and Execution. Strong Point helps customers systematize, standardize, and scale important changes and initiatives.

I often think back to my days of walking through and working through Innovation Labs because so much of what they intended to nurture in people, is still in great need today. Innovation Labs provide a place where:

  • Frustrated workers can get “psychological air” and vent discontent about teams, systems, processes and tools with objective observers from other areas of the business who can listen and may even be able to share similar experiences and offer solid solutions
  • Professionals and Teams can present improvement ideas and cross-check the idea(s) with other functions and business units as a means to introduce, leverage, reuse and scale operational efficiencies
  • Potential product, technology or market ideas can be met with the resources to conduct more detailed internal and external market research to test the presence and soundness of an idea and fuel an important innovation engine within the company
  • The organization as a whole can regularly capture areas of discontent or difficulty and systematically work toward and communicate upgrades to inefficient teams, tools, technologies and processes
  • Professionals and Teams can get exposure to building a business case, developing and/or implementing new technologies and tools in a formal “intrapreneurial” environment
  • Innovation can be seen by all leaders and employees of the organization and enacted as a continuous “work-in-progress” as means to keep innovation alive in the operating environment
  • Individuals and Teams can support the work of the Innovation Lab as a way to enable and sustain individual, team and corporate growth.
  • Professionals can gain or strengthen the business skills such as Business Analysis, Requirements Gathering, Business Case Development to bring an idea to fruition within the operating environment
  • Interpersonal and Collaboration skills are tested and matured through the ideas, interactions and advancements supported by the Innovation Lab

Building and maintaining an active Innovation Lab can strengthen individual, team and corporate leadership in many diverse and meaningful ways.

Kevin Nowka, Director of IBM’s Research Lab in Austin Texas, said it this way:

“An Innovation Lab gives you the ability to test out and experience and experiment with new technologies and more importantly, to find out how they will integrate with existing business processes or enhance them”

What does an Active Innovation Lab look like?

Since I’m suggesting that maintaining an active innovation lab is one way to support and sustain leadership ability, let me also share my vision for what an innovation lab is, and how to get one started.

Physical Space/ Technical Space

An Innovation Lab should be a creative physical space as much as it is a creative intellectual and operational space. It should be technically advanced and have a wide variety of technology tools, including computing workstations, smart boards, video cameras and computer operations recording capability. One or more technical development, testing and training environments should be created to mirror current production operations, so new tools, proof-of-concept systems, or newly configured applications, workflows and processes can be started, run through-to-completion and quickly restarted. The Innovation Lab should have wall space and board space enough to draw, capture and video thoughts, ideas and system operations. Workstations, table, panel and conference space should all be placed to physically support ideation and collaboration.

On-Site Innovation Support Team

The Lab need not be managed by a technology leader, but it should have a single, emerging leader run its operations. The lab also needs to be supported by a technology team that provides, configures, stages and refreshes the technology environments needed to understand, develop and prototype new innovation or automation ideas. Professionals from various business functions such as Sales, Marketing, and Manufacturing who have completed and/or are capable of detailed analysis, should be assigned to support the market research and feasibility studies associated with the lab’s innovation projects. Legal and finance representatives can provide important perspectives to innovation efforts as well as vendor and partner managers who may bring important “outside-in” perspectives to the lab and its projects.

Off-Site Innovation Support Team

Off-site innovation support for the lab can be provided by international team members who have diverse needs and stakeholders. Outsourced technology, call-center, and operations teams, for example, can provide depth to and validation for important innovative ideas. These members supply the global testing and rich vetting necessary to choose and support the most impactful implementations of innovation.

Advisory Team Members

Advisory Team members are Senior Communications, Human Resources or Operations Leaders. These members work to keep the company’s innovation efforts top of mind in the operating environment. It’s important for all employees to see and support the company’s efforts to innovate and grow. Innovation generates energy and vice versa.

Innovation Lab Leaders and Advisers

Lab Leaders and Advisors are the most senior advocates of the company and growth. They need to know and guard the creative and regenerative work done in and by the Innovation Lab. They can place the lab’s efforts in market, competitive and business context as well as provide the advocacy and areas of focus for lab projects. They have the vision necessary to place key innovation initiatives on the company’s strategic roadmap.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, once wrote:

“The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

The discipline of leadership requires us to constantly, look at ourselves, our teams and our work with new eyes, and ears and thoughts that challenge the status-quo and ask, “How Can I work to Advance?” one way is to follow

Strong Point’s Leadership Rule #11: Maintain an Active Innovation Lab