I’m writing today about what is becoming the most critical innovation barrier. For years we’ve talked about risk, uncertainty, culture and other factors that block innovation. Increasingly, the biggest barrier is time. Time is an innovation barrier on several levels. William Penn wrote that “time is what we want most, but use worst”. Couldn’t open with a better quote.
The first is management time, especially available time to get involved and engaged. Every executive wants innovation in his or her company, yet they often seem to assume it will happen magically, with no involvement or investment from the executive team. Nothing can be further from the reality. Where an executive spends his or her time sends signals to the rest of the organization. In a meeting with a client recently, an executive was expounding on the importance of innovation, yet balked at spending a day assessing his organization’s existing strengths and weaknesses. He felt he could not afford the time to focus on innovation, yet expected the organization to set aside time to shift capabilities and priorities. What executives do, and where they spend their time, tells the rest of the organization what is important. An executive’s most valuable asset is his or her time. Where and when they spend that time indicates what’s important and valuable to them. Does your executive team spend time on innovation? And here I mean championing it, getting engaged with the activities, encouraging innovation in the company, not simply demanding results and reviewing metrics.
The second time factor is short term. Businesses today are captivated by quarterly results, and activities or investments that don’t help achieve the quarter are candidates for defunding or simply eliminated. If a person or an activity doesn’t contribute to making the quarter, either by cutting costs or bringing in new, immediate revenue, many executives can’t fathom why they’d bother. We’ve built highly efficient organizations structured by rewards which accrue based on quarterly results. There’s no time like the present now has an ominous ring, since there doesn’t seem to be time to think about the future or lay the foundations for future products and services.
The third time factor is thinking versus doing. Today we value action, doing, perpetual motion, yet good innovation is contemplative, based on discovery of what we don’t know. Innovation makes mistakes, creates new learning that may not be immediately applied. Too often good innovation looks like research, thinking, contemplation, and fails the activity tests. How much time should your organization spend thinking up new things, versus doing stuff more efficiently? What does the culture reflect and reinforce? Golda Meir said it best: “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it”.
The fourth factor is development and commercialization time. While everything else in a business is speeding up, many firms seem to be adding time to product development and commercialization. It seems to take longer and longer to get products to market, so two things happen. First, since it takes so long to get to market it has to deliver value quickly. Therefore it must be easy to acquire, easy to understand and easy to adopt. That means that products that move through the development funnel are more likely to be incremental, with lower risks, but lower upsides. Second, the product development funnel is clogged with unnecessary and undifferentiated products, but few firms take the time to re-evaluate their portfolios and prune projects and products. Once established, many products continue well past their expiry date and simply take up development and sustenance resources that could be applied elsewhere.
If time is money, then where are you placing your time bets? Most organizations focus an inordinate amount of time and energy on short term activities, which severely limits innovation possibilities. Further, since executives won’t commit time or get engaged, the organization places a low priority on innovation, giving it less time and focus. And when product cycle times increase, there’s less time for developing interesting new products and services.
Look at where your organization spends its value time. Are all of the activities and commitments as important and as valuable as the time you could spend innovating, establishing new revenue opportunities and new differentiation for your company? Culture, risk and uncertainty are still significant innovation barriers, but time is rapidly becoming the most important barrier. As the saying goes, time waits for no man. Innovation doesn’t either. If you don’t have time for innovation, someone else will capitalize on the good idea, and it will represent another missed opportunity for you.
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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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.