Innovate or follow: 10 rules for managing global innovation

While there has been a good deal written lately about innovation, very few have addressed the challenges associated with innovation in a global enterprise.

The iPhone has been around for five years, yet every major smartphone maker employs a swipe metaphor for their high-end smartphones. Not long after Apple introduced the iPhone, several competitors began copying Cupertino's innovative approach to navigation.

Regardless, Apple managed to stay ahead of the competition by creating a small ecosystem around the extension of their innovative approach to navigation to the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and even the Magic Mouse. This is possible only because the culture of the organization supports a high level of collaboration.

Allocate resources on the basis of capability not availability

Fast Company recently wrote an interesting anecdote about an Apple shipping department employee. The guy had stacked all of the boxes in the truck to have the Apple logo facing out. When asked about it, he said that he did it because he liked the stunned look on people's faces when they saw a wall of Apple logos. You can't teach that type of ground level innovation -- Apple is in his DNA.  

Some would argue that everyone working together, and collaborating in a shared location enables innovation. On a macro level, being in close proximity to other companies who are on the cutting edge of innovation is the main driver of technology companies moving to the Silicon Valley, for example: to be where the action is.

But what if you are a global company, with offices all over the world?

While there has been a good deal written lately about innovation, very few have addressed the challenges associated with bringing new ideas from a global enterprise. Part of the problem or challenge of disperse innovation is how to replicate all of the positive aspects of collocation while leveraging the diversity available globally.

Keeley Wilson and Yves Doz argue that, "companies are well aware that hidden in their dispersed, global operations is a treasure trove of ideas an capabilities for innovation". They suggest the following ten rules for managing innovation in a global enterprise:

  1. Start small: Projects that are to span multiple sites or geographies will struggle because of differing workplace practices, communication styles, and cultural norms. No matter how tempting to tackle a large initiative, start small and allow teams to establish new methods of collaboration.
  2. Provide a stable organizational context: Periods of instability will work to create complexity, or further complicate dispersed innovation because focus will be elsewhere.
  3. Assign oversight and support responsibility to a senior manager: Scattered project teams tend to escalate small issues, increase conflict, and create lag in making critical decisions. It is therefore important that there be strong stakeholder support and clear leadership. Creating a role for senior executives on the project team is a particularly effective method to provide a stabile organizational context, suggest Wilson and Doz.
  4. Use rigorous project management and seasoned project leaders: Project management allows for discipline, structure, and a shared sense of purpose on projects, and is doubly important on large complex innovation projects.
  5. Appoint a lead site: Just as executive leadership is important, designating a site to lead the initiative will serve to keep the teams focused on the bigger picture.
  6. Invest time in defining the innovation: The idea here is that the project is spread out over sites, timezones, and likely cultures, so there is little time for any sort of iterative learning. Studies have shown a positive correlation between the up-front investment in defining goals and technical specification and a project's successful outcome.
  7. Allocate resources on the basis of capability not availability: This is a sore subject for me. Too often resources are allocated in order to clear a bench rather than due to a skills match with requirements. In the end this will only server to undermine the success of the project. Don't do it!
  8. Build enough knowledge overlap for collaboration: Sites should also be selected on the basis of capability; however, small degrees of overlap between site will facilitate the success of knowledge transfer and reduce problems during the integration phase.
  9. Limit the number of subcontractors and partners: There will be enough to do without needing to spend resources on the management of external partner relationships.
  10. Don't rely solely on technology for communication: Technology can go a long way toward facilitating relationships but nothing beats face-to-face communication.

These ten steps, Wilson and Doz suggest, are the foundation to the successful management of global innovation. Ignore them at your own peril.

Have you had experience with global innovation? Let me know if you find these ten steps useful.

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