Sometimes You Need to Hear “No” to Go Deeper

We slunk back to our conference room and stare at the walls and table littered with papers. Weeks of pulling data, drawing graphs, running complex simulations: REJECTED.

Our team’s substantial capital request to increase raw material production capacity had been denied! If our forecasts were correct, we’d be unable to meet customer demand in 12 months, resulting in a huge shortfall in potential sales.

What we needed to keep in mind, however, was that all good transformations begin with a “no.”

The request for capital may have been denied, but the problem still needed solving.

The VP who had denied our request had set us on a path of discovery and tool development that would later come to be known as the six sigma process.

We planned our attack using every quality tool we had at our disposal. We held daily stand up briefings, weekly reviews and monthly town hall meetings. We made the goals very visible, and each key process step had a chart on the wall with its current performance and yield goal. We had our rolling “top five” list and focused unceasingly to get the throughput up. We sat with our operators, removed queues,  fixed bottlenecks, and re-ran simulations. We changed incentives, developed programs for operator recommendations and rewards and hired new engineers with new ideas. Like a NASA launch, we fired the rocket and at first there was very little motion. However, there were small improvements, then more and finally it began to snowball. Not only did we have enough capacity, but we actually found an excess of raw materials. We met our 12 month production target, and within 24 months, we were retiring some raw material production.

This event was many years ago, but its impact set the stage for multiple breakthrough projects that I would be privileged to lead. I think back frequently to those hard won lessons as I work to develop new business and product lines for clients. Most organizations start their innovation programs with large investments in tools to promote innovative thinking, ideation and creativity. Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t have a rich idea pool, these are good things to do. But if you do have a good starting point, this is equivalent to making more raw material, when what needs to happen is a close examination of the process of getting value from the idea itself. Michelangelo didn’t need more marble, what he needed were new, better tools with which to execute his vision.

Efficient implementation is as important as coming up with new ideas.

In my work, I have found that businesses usually have a sufficient seed stock of good ideas already residing within the organization, but many of the really good ones are just off the radar, and do not make it into the formal stage gates of innovation. So rather than signing off on a new R&D facility, what is really called for is a highly-targeted assessment of the leanness and flexibility of the innovation process as a whole.

Now I’ll touch on a few points of high leverage.

4 Steps to Leaner Innovation

  1. Jump the gaps. I have either led or been part of every functional team between research and the customer and know the multiple force fields that exist which may prevent an idea or technology from making it to a product or service. The silos predominate many well-intended efforts to scale new technologies and business models into the organization. Examining those organizational boundaries is extremely fruitful ground for unclogging the innovation pipeline. For more information on this, see my post on developing organizational influence as an innovator.
  2.  Fewer, fully. Senior management needs to realize that taking on a small number of innovative projects that are supported from idea to customer will lead to much better results than uncoordinated functional activity. Set cross cutting compensation incentives and hold reviews on the horizontal progress of key initiatives. I’ll deal with some examples of how this works down the road as well.
  3. Rocket fuel: Send R&D to the front lines. Systematically send the R&D team members out to the front lines with the sales team. Set metrics for customer visits by researchers, and give their insights wide circulation. Select at least one lead customer to be part of an advisory team of innovation, and invite them to a meeting at least once a year that includes time to present you their thoughts.
  4. Hold a frog kissing contest. Let it be known that team members can experience project failure without committing career hari kari. Well-known inventor and innovator Dean Kamen has an award for his team called the Frog Kissing Award. It is awarded to the team member with the highest quality “frog kiss.” This would be someone who fully committed to a new idea and took it to prototype only to see it not work out. What this does is create an all-in culture that celebrates and encourages smart and focused effort.

Have you ever seen a transformation that began with someone saying “no”?

Do you have a process for your R&D and sales teams to interact?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Please email me or Tweet me with your ideas and feedback.

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