By Jim Euchner, RTM Editor-in-Chief
It is perhaps a tautology to say that innovation is change management. By definition, innovation is giving something new to the world, and accepting something new requires some level of change. We often think of ourselves not as change agents, however, but as creators, inventors, and designers caught in a web of resistances that are largely beyond our control. We might be more satisfied and successful if we thought of ourselves formally (and perhaps primarily) as change agents.
Innovators confront a variety of organizational change issues. There is change associated with introducing new methods or technical capabilities into an organization. There is change associated with incubating an innovation that doesn’t quite fit with what Govindarajan and Trimble call the “performance engine” of a corporation. And there is change required to bring to life a new growth engine for a firm. We all manage these changes, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, sometimes with optimism and at others with despair, sometimes consciously and at other times haphazardly. But few of us are formally taught or consciously learn the disciplines of change management.
Chris Argyris, an expert in organizational learning and change, identified the concept of organizational defensive routines (ODRs), the patterns of behavior that keep companies from embracing the kinds of big change required for transformational or breakthrough innovation—change that requires rethinking how resources are prioritized, how decisions are made, or how processes are optimized. Faced with this kind of unsettling change, people will do whatever is needed to maintain the status quo and resist the efforts of those trying to create a new reality. Overcoming ODRs is the province of change management.
John Kotter developed an influential seven-step model for managing organizational change that I think is relevant to managing innovation. The first three steps are:
1. Create a sense of urgency for the change. The people critical to implementing an innovation need to have a gut-level belief that it is important (not just nice to have). If the company can meet its goals and aspirations without the innovation, it is hard to create that sense of urgency.
2. Build a powerful guiding coalition. The change must be enabled by an influential group of people personally committed to its success, people who can create the necessary sense of priority and give permission to reset operating norms where appropriate.
3. Establish a clear (and shared) vision for the future. If you don’t have a coherent vision that describes where you are going, it’s difficult for people to support your efforts. Without a growth strategy, innovation becomes fragmented and energy is dissipated. Far from constraining innovation, clear boundaries liberate people to pursue new concepts that have a chance of being implemented.
These steps can often be taken for granted with innovation to create next-generation products, the dominant role of R&D in most companies. But for innovation that requires change management—including attempts to create new businesses, shift business models, or respond to potentially disruptive technologies—the requirements for change management are vital, and rarely explicitly managed. Innovators tend to focus on the business, financial, and technical risks of the venture, not on the associated organizational change. This accounts, I think, for the failure of many promising new businesses inside corporations…
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