Fortune Innovation Blog & Conference – Interview with Mark Turrell

Categories: Innovation Insights, Innovation Conferences

One of the best sources of information on innovation is Chuck Frey’s InnovationTools web site. I recently caught up with Chuck at the Innovation Convergence conference in Minneapolis. We shared spicy Thai food, and deep thoughts on the world of innovation.

Chuck recently shared the interview on Fortune Magazine’s new Business Innovation blog – a superb new resource for the corporate innovator. You can read my interview there – or keep reading. And by the way, make sure you let me know if you are going to the Fortune Innovation conference in NYC – I’ll be there!

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Chuck Frey, the founder of InnovationTools and the author of the Innovation Weblog, recently interviewed Mark Turrell, the CEO and co-founder of innovation management software firm Imaginatik, about his views on the world of innovation in a guest posting for the FORTUNE Business Innovation 2005 blog. Mark has spent a lot of time researching the broader world of innovation, investigating new business processes, new product development methods, and innovation metrics for a broad cross-section of companies like Pfizer, Kraft and Dow Chemical, so he brings a lot to the table. [He also runs a cool innovation blog called Innovation BBL.]

Frey: You consume a lot of information about innovation, as well as consulting with some of the world’s most innovative organizations. What trends do you see in the world of innovation today?

Turrell: I see two distinct types of company: bleeding edge innovators and the catch-up clan. The very best companies in the world may be investing many times more resources into innovation, but innovation is such a tricky beast that even the best have problems – just different problems from the rest of us.

The catch-up clan comprise of the bulk of organizations who have finally woken up to the inevitable need to grow (or survive) through innovation.

The trends I am looking out for deal with open innovation (tapping into the outside world), enterprise innovation (tapping into all employees, not just one or two divisions), and increasing investments in the Concept Development or Pre-Project phase of the innovation pipeline.

The best trend of all is innovation itself. It is impossible to pick up a business magazine, newspaper – heck, even a government report – without reading about the importance of innovation. This time there is an explicit focus on systematic and purposeful innovation initiatives, supported by good process.

Frey: How has CEO-level recognition of the importance of innovation evolved in the last several years?

Turrell: Many innovation observers criticize CEOs for not paying enough attention to innovation. In my view, this is simply untrue. They have invested in many types of innovation activity in the past, they have just been led astray.

In the early 1990s, innovation was all about executive retreats and brainstorming techniques. In the mid-1990s, focus switched to establishing a “culture of innovation,” and we witnessed companies executing large-scale programs to promote creative thinking. Sadly this did not work – a workforce needs direction, and a baseball cap with “THINK” written on it does not make it so.

In the late 1990s CEOs began investing heavily in new ventures, particularly dotcoms. In retrospect this may have been somewhat crazy, but it showed just how much money was available to innovation when the C-level suite took an interest.

The early 2000s kicked off with a lot of expensive, project-driven disruptive innovation initiatives. Clayton Christensen was the poster child of this innovation wave, the Innovators Solution the bible. Things all went horribly wrong, as they tend to do when you over-focus on one area. Many disruptions are too early for the market, or too much for the executive team to approve, and so most of these groups disbanded.

And that brings us to today. 70% of the companies we speak to have calculated revenue growth gaps – they know how big the prize is if they succeed. Top companies use a balanced set of innovation metrics to drive innovation from the top. Grassroots initiatives have either become a vital element in driving culture change, or have withered to nothing (“grassrots innovation” as I lovingly call it).

CEOs are now the instigators of more innovation process initiatives than we have seen before. Maybe we should not be surprised – often they are the only people in the organization that truly have an eye to the future that lies a mere two to five years out.

Frey: Why do you think it’s so hard for companies to become good at innovation?

Turrell: Arrogance has to be up there. Too many newly minted Innovation Directors believe that they can come up with the world’s best methods by themselves – and they are often plain wrong. You can only innovate well if you are open to outside thinking – ideas, concepts, and innovation processes.

I believe the innovation process itself is ripe for innovation. It has always amazed me that the failure rate for new product launches has not budged from 65% in the last decade – in spite of the millions spent on stage-gate and other new product development processes. Either people are stupid… or the methods are wrong. I am on the side of the people on this one.

I do believe that innovation, by its nature, will always be difficult. It is a discipline that deals with uncertainty, with risk, and with the often genuine fear of personal career damage. The innovation process itself is designed to handle a massive attrition rate from raw idea to product-in-market, and yet we as humans find it hard to distance ourselves from the ideas or projects we like. If we could take the human being out of the innovation equation, we would all be fine – but where would the fun (or reality) be in that?

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