Getting a Jump Start
Resources and advice for advancing your career in innovation
by Peter Merrill
In last year’s July issue of QP,1 I wrote about what a career in innovation might look like. In this column, I want to provide you with some ways to get there. If, like me, you find innovation exciting and you want to engage, I can tell you the time to do so is now, and ASQ is doing several things to help you.
First, an ASQ Innovation Interest Group has been formed and was officially launched at the World Conference on Quality and Improvement (WCQI) in May in Indianapolis. The group morphed from the technical committee formed by the ASQ Quality Management Division (QMD) in 2008. Organizational change frequently starts as a smaller effort within an organization, and I want to give credit to QMD for its foresight in initiating this development.
The Innovation Interest Group is dedicated to promoting innovation as a subject within ASQ by sharing knowledge and, ultimately, developing a body of knowledge (BoK). In the future, we hope to see ASQ offer a certification in innovation, which, if you are seeking a career in innovation, will be important for you.
Many may think the BoK on innovation will be scattered and diverse. To combat that, ASQ Board of Directors Chair John Timmerman had the vision to hold a think tank on innovation, which took place on the Friday prior to WCQI. After the board approved the activity, we invited a range of experts in the field, including ASQ CEO Paul Borawski.
Fifteen experts—from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Finland—spent a day discussing what innovation means. At the end of the day, we all came out of the experience with a huge sense of excitement at the remarkable level of consensus that had been achieved. Five years ago, this would not have been possible. The day was graphically recorded and the knowledge has been downloaded as the seed material for initiating the BoK. The Innovation Interest Group spent Saturday setting up the first ASQ innovation booth at WCQI and on Sunday evening, the ship was launched at the opening reception.
During the conference, many visitors to the booth asked to join the group. If you are interested, you also can join by going to www.asq.org/innovation-group. You can begin developing your own BoK on innovation.
One of the first steps for a would-be innovation professional is to understand where your competencies lie. Many say, "Oh, I’m not creative, so I can’t be an innovator." That’s not true. We all have skills and knowledge to contribute at the different stages of the innovation process.
Creative people are good at seeing opportunity and finding conceptual solutions, but they can’t work without those who are good at developing working solutions and delivering the solution to the marketplace. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."2
You cannot innovate on your own—innovation is a collaborative activity. Because of that, you realize that one of your key responsibilities as an innovation manager is to understand your own strengths and, importantly, understand the strengths of the people you work with. It also will be important to have a project team that has a balance of competencies.
At the WCQI innovation booth, we had three touch screens that conference attendees could use to determine which of the four innovation aptitudes they were: a creator, a connector, a developer or a doer. If you missed this opportunity, find your aptitude at www.petermerrill.com/self-assessment.
In the general population, the balance of the four aptitudes is roughly equal, although connectors account for less than 20% of people. In North America, 25% of people are doers. In ASQ, there will be a bias toward connectors, as our community is focused on problem solving. I have seen quality functions in which everyone is a connector. This is because so many of us are problem solvers. The spread of data from those who took the self-assessment at WCQI was 10% creators, 40% connectors, 20% developers and 30% doers, indicating a strong ASQ bias to connectors and a shortage of creators.
If you are a connector, you will need to draw in people who are creators, developers and doers. This is counterintuitive, as we are all prone to the mirror effect; we are drawn to people who are similar to ourselves. Without creators to see opportunities and without developers, like myself, who are good at establishing working solutions, connectors will always struggle to move the ball forward on their own. A key task for you as a professional innovator will be to balance the right and left brain of your organization—the creativity and the execution.
Getting your win
My next advice is to develop your project management skills. You do not need to be an expert but you must understand the basics. I was a member of the working group that developed ISO 10006—Quality management in projects. I learned the difference between two closely aligned disciplines. At the risk of sounding cynical, quality managers focus on getting it right, but time is less important. Meanwhile, time is of the essence for project managers, so a few flaws can be overlooked. You need a foot in both camps.
This year’s WCQI had a theme of "Managing Change." As an innovation manager, you must be a primary change agent. Last year,3 I referred to John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, as providing a great checklist for the change process in which we must engage as innovation managers.4 It is not a linear process, but for simplicity, I am showing the model I have developed from Kotter’s book (see Figure 1).
However, as with quality management, you need leadership commitment before you start. Create a sense of urgency—often called a "burning platform"—by working with the sales and marketing representatives to find mature products that are dying. For some quality managers, working with the sales and marketing teams may be unfamiliar territory, but I can promise you: It is exciting. This is the first step in breaking down barriers between business functions.
Create a team that covers the four aptitudes of innovation. Some team members may be strong in more than one aptitude. A core team of one will struggle. The first task as a team is to get an early win related to an important customer need. Talk to your marketing folks. Include one of them on the team. Remember, as Plato said, "Necessity is the mother of invention."5 Spend time agreeing on a need you believe you can successfully meet. Make it low risk, high probability. This is where you are going to show people you have an innovation process (see Figure 2) and you can get results.
At this point, let me remind you that you are working on a project within a project, so don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. You want a win that you can achieve in a three to six-month timeframe, but you also want to be creating a strong vision of innovation in your organization that will lead to a critical mass. The common wisdom on critical mass in change is that we must achieve it in a year. This is driven by the business cycle in which the leaders will ask the year after you start: Is this working?
You also must market innovation internally. Use techniques such as the elevator speech, or one-minute message. These are familiar tools for the quality professional. In Quality is Free, Philip Crosby discussed how he convinced his chairman, Harold Geneen, of the benefits of quality management using this technique.6
Innovation is exciting and people want to know about it, so provide them with that information. Try holding lunch and learn sessions. Send your CEO articles on the topic from the Harvard Business Review—there’s an article on it in most issues. Look back and find past articles you think would be of interest.
You must engage with your leaders in developing your vision of innovation. This is where you will need to think more strategically. The definitive work on strategy was done by Michael Porter, who showed that the only long-term competitive advantage for a business is product differentiation—and that, of course, means innovation.7 Again, point your CEO to this work.
While you are doing this strategic stuff, don’t forget about the short-term win. When you achieve it, make sure it is secure and integrated into the business. You are managing projects at two levels. You are now back to your project within a project. Having achieved your win, raise the bar and go looking for your next win—a bigger one.
As a project manager, as well as a process manager, you must be mindful of your resources. You need time, money and people to do this. The budget is small in the creative phase, but after proof of concept is agreed on, ensure you have the budget and people to move forward. As a quality manager, you understand measurement, so make sure you have measures in place—even in the creative phase. You need both process and project measures. This will give your leadership confidence.
Finally, do not overlook recognition. Again quoting Crosby, in step 12 of his 14 steps to improvement, he said: "Appreciate those who participate."8 Creative people are often quiet people. Seek them out and recognize them in the midst of their friends and colleagues. This endorses the change you are driving in your organization.
I have touched on many aspects of knowledge an innovator needs to succeed. If you want to grow your knowledge of innovation, I encourage you to join ASQ’s Innovation Interest Group. Stay close to us as we develop the innovation BoK and move toward creating an innovation certification. These will fuel your career as an innovation manager.
- Peter Merrill, "Time for Change," Quality Progress, July 2012, pp. 42-43.
- Plato, The Republic, Book II, 360 B.C.
- Merrill, "Time for Change," see reference 1.
- John P. Kotter, Leading Change, Harvard Business Review Press, 1996.
- Thomas A. Edison and Dagobert D. Runs, ed., The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison, Abbey Publishing, 1968.
- Philip B. Crosby, Quality Is Free, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
- Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy, Free Press, 1998.
- Crosby, Quality Is Free, see reference 6.
Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Systems, an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ and chair of the ASQ Innovation Interest Group.