Dale Dauten: Speaker, Author, Innovation Consultant [an error occurred while processing this directive]

How to Build an Idea Factory

“Every leader in charge of a P&L has to make innovation happen, even if the company lacks a culture of innovation.  I’ll go further, and ask of middle managers reading this:  Are you actively involved in one or more innovation-centered growth projects?  If not, you should be worried, because you will be left behind or risk obsolescence….”
-From “The Game Changer” by Lafley and Charan

“The customer is king.”  Repeat that cliché and managers’ heads nod as they mutter, “True, true”… and then they go right on giving lousy service and selling schlock products.  Is that any way to treat the king? 

The problem is that when you look at, say, the average Wal-Mart shopper, what you see doesn’t look like royalty.  (On the other hand, picture Henry the Fifth in a Big Dog t-shirt and flip-flops, getting out of Tahoe holding a Taco Bell chalupa and a Big Gulp -- he’d fit right in.)

But should you forget who’s king, it doesn’t take long for a product to encounter the consumer version of “Off with their heads.”  The condemned product is left to bleed red ink on the “discontinued merchandise” table, picked over by scavengers, and a sample container of the product ends up being the equivalent of a head on a pike on London Bridge, set out on a shelf of product failures in some company’s back room, serving as a warning to ambitious young product managers.  You don’t mess with the king.

What got me thinking about beheaded products was the new book “The Game Changer” by the CEO of P&G, A.G. Lafley, and by consultant Ran Charan.  It was in a stack of books that publishers have sent me, and as I flipped through it, I saw a page called “A.G. Lafley’s 11 Biggest Innovation ‘Failures.’”  Right then, I was hooked.

I later interviewed Lafley and asked him about that page, wondering if he was referring to P&G failures, in general, or if the list was more personal.  He lit up at that question, immediately opened the book to that page and went through each one, detailing his involvement.  After going through all eleven he concluded, “Oh, yeah, I was part of the team that decided to take each of these to market.”  He added, “I’m fond of saying that I learn ten times as much from every failure as every success,” then, laughing, “I’ve learned a lot.”

That’s the thing about innovators -- they laugh at themselves and especially at their failures.

Meanwhile, they take innovation with deadly seriousness -- they understand that business is a game played to the death (of products and careers). 

What makes Lafley and Charan’s book different is its assertion that you can build a reliable system for innovations, and they offer a blueprint for doing just that.  As the authors write:  “Innovation requires practice.  It is a disciplined routine process.  It does not happen spontaneously.  Like raising children, it requires a combination of a steady hand and a certain joie de vivre – both creativity and discipline.  Most of all, innovation requires systems, structure and the right leaders.  That sounds dull, but there is an element of eat-your-spinach in doing anything right.”

“Dull”? “Eat-your-spinach”?

What about those “blue sky” sessions where you take off your shoes and socks and run about shooting Nerf guns at each other?  Once you’ve done a few of those sessions, and realized that just like you put your socks back on, you got back to the office and put your old mindset right back on, you’re willing to take a look at a process and a system. 

Indeed, at one point the authors compare creating an innovation process to building a factory.  Which is a cool image – an idea factory – but as I pointed out to Lafley, building a factory is expensive and requires resources beyond those available many managers or entrepreneurs.  When that’s the case, where do you start? I wondered.  He responded, “With the customer.”   At P&G they don’t say that “the customer is king” but that “the customer is boss.”  Lafley pointed out, “One on level, that sounds overly simple, but people at P&G know what it means.” 

And what it means is that you don’t just start with ideas, you start with customers.

If you going to take off your shoes and socks, it's because you’re doing laundry with consumers.  Spending enough time with consumers and you figure out new ways to help them, and that’s the raw material of the idea factory. 

Copyright © 2008, King Features Syndicate

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