Want to 'innovate'?

The conversation needs to start with shifting people's minds to solve problems differently.

A practical guide to implementing an innovation program.

The chief executive might be keen to push "innovation", but rushing in looking for quick wins without a plan to bring everyone on board from the start is a dangerous strategy.

Lynette Nixon, director of deals innovation at PricewaterhouseCoopers, is an admirer of design-based approaches to solving business problems.

Nixon, whose presentation at CPA Congress 2014 focused on the practical aspects of implementing an innovation program, says that means finding ways of "doing something different that creates value".

This can be value for the customer, for the supplier, for the community, or for the government and will give the proponents of any program plenty of ways to aim for success.

It also means Nixon has no time for the slogan-based quick-fix. 

"There's a lot of misdirected effort in rushing to an implementation that has a focus on notching up quick wins," she says.

"That's how companies end up executing the wrong strategy."

The better path is one where you "slow down to speed up", taking a long hard look first, and finding out what the real problem is. If this path is followed, when it comes to implementation all the risks have been taken out of the process.

This type of approach was taken by the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Design School in diminishing what was once referred to as Sydney’s "Kings Cross drinking problem". It’s a clear example of one recent "design thinking project" that has impressed Nixon.
 
Briefed by the New South Wales government, UTS reframed the problem “after executing  lots of conversations and observations on Thursday to Sunday nights" she says.

Consequently, the questions went from “how do we stop fights?” to “how would we host major events in Kings Cross on these nights?”

The answers were more security, better transport out of the club district and retraining of security.

For Nixon, this demonstrates that the conversation needs to start with shifting people's minds to solve problems differently – in a business context, introducing any change means first making it a customer-led process.

"At all stages, customers should be your reference point, as opposed to what is oftentimes a very loud voice in the organisation that says 'I know the right answer'.”

This voice could come from the CEO or just as likely a middle manager who has influence within the organisation. 

"In an 'innovation world', what we often find is people in middle management feel very uncomfortable with the concept of doing things differently. The process inevitably means their roles will change. 

"And if they are also the custodians of the project, responsible for the execution of that change, they will resist it and do so often and in a passive-aggressive way."

Nixon is not fazed by that behaviour. Change needs to be from the bottom up and from the leadership down, so that in some ways any doubting middle managers are caught in a pincer. 

"This is about making innovation democratic by giving everyone in the organisation a chance to have a say," she says.

"As you work through this process, you also need to think about how to engage your people in a meaningful and active way, so they have very strong authorship of the outcomes."

Some people may believe they are losers just because of the direction the changes are going in, which is something a CEO needs to take account of. 

"That's where leaders need to take a major role in bringing the middle managers on board as quite often the frontline staff are very keen to bring in change for the better," says Nixon.

Another crucial condition for change to really take place is that the employees involved need to believe three things:

•    The change will be good for them and their community
•    They have the skills to do what's expected of them
•    This change is being consistently reinforced as being important

If any one of these factors is absent, employee engagement will prove elusive, Nixon warns, adding: "In a volatile and uncertain business environment, the behaviour that most companies need to succeed is to be comfortable with change."