Turning Ideas Into Innovations

By Jack Rosenberger  |  Posted 10-22-2013
Chris Trimble, Beyond the Idea

Turning Ideas Into Innovations

By Jack Rosenberger

Without implementation, ideas remain just ideas. Many organizations, however, are not built for supporting innovative ideas, as co-authors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble point out in their new book, Beyond the Idea: How to Execute Innovation in Any Organization. Instead, the majority of organizations are built for supporting ongoing operations, or what the authors call the Performance Engine. For innovative ideas to be successfully executed in an organization, and for the practice of innovation to be compatible with the daily operations of the ever-important Performance Engine, Govindarajan and Trimble propose three models in Beyond the Idea:

  • Model S, for small initiatives. Employees create time in their schedules to work on small projects.
  • Model R, for repeatable initiatives. A group of employees work full-time on innovative initiatives, making the innovative practice both repeatable and predictable.
  • Model C, for custom initiatives. A dedicated team, often comprised of a mix of part-time and full-time employees, work on one initiative at a time.

It is vital, of course, to match the right initiative with the right model. If a project can be executed by a few people in their spare time, Model S is perfect. If the initiative is similar to a previous initiative and the same people in the same roles can execute the same process, Model R is right. For all other initiatives, it’s Model C.

Properly executed, a Model C effort can lead to the development of “a new Model R process for launching a series of new and improved versions of the original innovation,” Govindarajan and Trimble note in Beyond the Idea. “The first iPhone was a Model C effort; each subsequent launch could be managed with Model R.”

Chris Trimble, a faculty member at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and an advisor to dozens of corporations, recently spoke with CIO Insight about the three models, innovation culture and unrealistic employee expectations, project management, and why Model C “is the most difficult of the three models, but also the most robust.”

People like to talk about big ideas, but the implementation of these ideas gets less attention.
“We have a certain mythology about innovation—that it’s about brilliant people and brilliant ideas. Everyone wants to be the visionary, the person with the big idea. Everyone wants to be part of the big idea hunt. But the truth is that the execution of innovation initiatives is much harder than most people imagine, and it demands much greater attention and energy than it normally gets. ”

What are the most common mistakes that organizations make when they use these three models?
“Almost every company that I work with wants to create a so-called culture of innovation in which everyone can come up with new ideas and even take some initiative to make things happen. The problem is, if everyone is innovating, then who is responsible for day-to-day operations? Realistically, people are very busy, so trying to build a culture of innovation—described as Model S in our book—amounts to trying to squeeze innovation into people’s very scarce free time.

“Model S does work, however, for small projects. It is possible to walk a mile by taking 10,000 steps. But companies often have unrealistic expectations of what Model S can deliver. People can execute small projects no larger than what one person, or at most a few people, can execute in their free time. That said, bigger projects require teams dedicated to a particular project. Of course, companies can afford only a few such teams.

“One danger in trying to create a culture of innovation is that employee expectations can become unrealistic. Everyone thinks they get to be an innovator, but realistically there are only resources for a few projects.”

Why doesn’t every organization have Model R or strive for it?
“A lot of companies do. Any company under constant pressure to bring out new and improved products, and do it on time and on budget, needs Model R. An example of a company that understands Model R is Hasbro, which produces thousands of new products, including new toys and new games, each year.  

Turning Ideas Into Innovations

“Organizations get in trouble when they don’t understand the limits of Model R. There are two sharp constraints. You are limited to the people you already have, and you are limited to the way they are currently organized. When Hasbro launched a new video game venture, it made the wise move of creating a new team from scratch, bringing in software engineers and video game experts. That kind of step is absolutely necessary—and often overlooked. 

“The only alternative to Models S and R is Model C, which is the most difficult of the three models, but also the most robust. Few companies, if any, are consistently good at it, even those that show up on the ‘Most Innovative Companies of the Year’ lists. Many companies struggle to build effective teams. They imagine that the right answer is to either execute with the people in place or to build a completely separate team, but the right answer is the middle ground—a partnership between one group that works full time and another who works part time on the innovation initiative. Beyond the Idea prescribes exactly how to make this model work.”

What’s the main mistake that companies make when they select a model? 
“They overlook Model C, instead imagining that any innovation initiative can be tackled with the more familiar models, R and S. The main challenge of Model C is that it requires a dedicated team. This can feel expensive, and it creates a challenging organizational dynamic, starting with questions about team membership (such as ‘Why didn’t I get picked for the team?’).”

Do you have any advice for CIOs?
“IT organizations are designed around projects. My advice is to put a step in the approval process that asks, ‘Can we execute this project with the team we have, organized the way they are currently organized?’ For most projects, the answer is yes. But for those that are not, Model C is essential, and it demands a different approach and much more managerial attention.”

About the Author

Jack Rosenberger is the managing editor of CIO Insight. You can follow him on Twitter via @CIOInsight. You can read his previous CIO Insight article, “How to Lead Like Red Burns,” by clicking here.