While this post is slightly tongue in cheek, I wanted to explore with you, my gentle readers, one of the most insidious barriers to innovation, the lowly calendar. While other challenges to innovation may appear more robust, it is actually the calendar that has the most subtle power.
First, consider the power of the calendar on the way most business people think about results. In any publicly traded company, our time yardsticks are 90 days and one year. Ninety days is the duration of a quarter, when businesses report their increases or decreases in their business. In any business of any significant size, very little can actually get accomplished in a quarter, but that’s the reporting timeframe we are stuck with. The quarterly reporting timeframe means that few things that will impact costs or revenue in a quarter will be worked on aggressively in that quarter. The yearly or annual report is another yardstick which seems too short and outdated as well, but we persist in its use. What I find interesting is that many businesses start planning for the upcoming year six months before the year starts. Many businesses spend almost half of the measurement period planning for the period. And we wonder why it is so hard to get innovation done. These calendar items distract from interesting innovation work at best and at worst encourage managers and executives to ignore innovation, since it is difficult to achieve results in either of these time periods that will impact the top line or bottom line.
Another tyranny of the calendar is simply attempting to schedule meetings and events with an innovation team. Most innovation teams include many people who have “day jobs” and the attempts to schedule time to discuss trends, or generate ideas, or interact with customer panels is almost impossible. Everyone in business today is overscheduled, and every item on the calendar seems of dire importance. I had a client recently tell us that the innovation project we were working on was of the utmost importance, yet we couldn’t schedule a meeting of the innovation team for almost six weeks due to scheduling conflicts. What’s more important, innovation or the calendar?
Calendars present another barrier to innovation in that many firms still operate on a “calendar” year, starting their business year in January and ending it in December. This means that not much gets done in January as the year kicks off, then there is a flurry of activity to get things done by the end of March, which is the end of the first quarter, so innovation in the first quarter is difficult without momentum coming out of the previous year. Then, in a period seemingly ripe for innovation, the rush is to get something started before the mass vacations start in the summer. Forget about kicking off big projects in July and August. That leaves September and then planning season really kicks in until the fall holidays, when everyone is trying to wrap up the year and eat up all their unused vacation time.
Finally, one more reason why calendars are insidious for innovation efforts. Businesses plan and budget expenditures on a calendar basis, often setting spending plans in September or October for the following year, with limited flexibility on changes in spending for the next year. Innovation projects face two conundrums based on that budgeting. One, good ideas may occur out of sequence with the annual budget, meaning that while we generate good ideas we may not have the funds allocated to implement them in this year. Second, many innovation projects can span more than one year, meaning that the program has to be funded in two annual cycles. In firms where the average product development cycle is 18 months to two years, an idea may be part of two, or even three annual planning cycles, each one an opportunity for the idea to be defunded.
Clearly, the best time to have started an innovation project is “last quarter”. We innovators need to recognize and ensure our executives recognize that innovations aren’t governed by a fixed calendar, and that busy calendars get in the way of doing good innovation work. The calendar has become a barrier for our work rather than a tool to assist our work, and we need to put the calendar back in its rightful place.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.