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Scale innovation beyond pretty prototypes

Scale innovation beyond pretty prototypes

Leaders are stuck in a cycle of ambition and design, failing to scale crucial ideas to organisation-wide

CIOs are investing in innovation to meet CEO demands for growth. Yet at some point, the Red Bull runs dry, the pizza gets thrown away and innovation often fizzles.

The pursuit of innovation is one of the primary ways enterprises are responding to the opportunities and threats of digital business. Many innovation investments are front-loaded, focusing on the prototyping of new ideas, but not enough on what comes after to realise enterprise value. This results in too many proven ideas failing to scale.

Everybody believes they’re digitally transforming in one way or another. But when actual change is examined, the results are disappointing. It turns out that 66 per cent of leaders think they’re transforming, but only 17 per cent really are, according to Gartner's 2018 digital business survey.

Part of the reason is that leaders are stuck in a cycle of ambition and design, failing to scale crucial ideas to organisation-wide and market ready innovations.

Aggravating this situation is a sense that digital initiatives can skip the rigour and rules. That’s hype. In fact, the reverse is true. Scaling is a big investment for the business and takes considerable time, effort and resources from across the organisation.

Scaling occurs when a proven idea, whether a piece of software, a new service or a brand new business, is readied for and adopted by a large base of users for some business benefit.

Due to visibility, number and scope, scaling digital initiatives requires even more scaling prowess than regular innovation. There are three elements — ownership, behaviour and process — to scale proven ideas.

Each element contains scale breakers that lurk at every turn, ready to derail a proven idea. These include weak ownership of the idea, strong resistance to change and failure to transition from pioneering processes centred on exploration, to professional processes focused on procedure and control.

But you can turn these scale breakers into scale makers that can accelerate scaling to deliver on innovation promise and grow revenue. Strong ownership replaces weak. Demand for the idea replaces resistance. Professional processes replace pioneering ones.

From weak to strong ownership

Great ideas stall before scaling. This isn’t because they have no value, but no one clearly commits to scale them. Scaling is a marriage, not a date. It requires long-term commitment.

Three constituencies need to commit: senior management, who authorise funding and offer protection; controllers, who are the process and compliance masters; and makers, the associates in IT and the business who industrialise the idea for mass consumption.

Scaling a proven idea means it will probably morph and change hands several times before launch. Unmanaged handoffs can be fatal, like in a relay race. Passing the baton is the most dangerous moment. The passing is practiced and deliberate. As part of the exchange, teammates run together for a while.

Similarly, when scaling a proven idea, enterprises reduce risk by being deliberate about ownership transfer and swapping people in and out of the team gradually — they run together for a while.

Ensure senior management commits real money and political support. Polite interest isn’t enough to overcome the multiple challenges that proven ideas face when being scaled. There’s a big difference between “That's an interesting idea” and “I will fund it.”

Avoid dotted line delivery teams or participants who spend “20 per cent” of their time on the scaling project. This level of commitment is unlikely to be sufficient to meet the many inherent challenges.

In Australia’s Department of Human Services, for example, the IT organisation dedicated a new division to a transformation project so that existing teams didn’t have to scale the new system in addition to continuing their main job. 

From resistance to demand behaviour

Scaling takes commitment, focus and effort. It also requires behavioural and often cultural change. You can’t simply inform the business that a new product is approaching and expect a smooth ride.

In reality, scaling often causes disruption to routine business practices. Some scaling resistance is inevitable. It should be sought out and resolved. But unmanaged scaling, where no thought has been given to how to introduce the idea for wider use, creates unnecessary resistance that can be avoided.

Pay special attention to dissonant knowledge, where an individual technically understands what is proposed but doesn't agree with it. This is an area where scaling can get derailed. Start by separating the technical aspect of the change from the cognitive aspect.

Cultivate demand by creating a vision of a post-scale future that is better than today. Involve controllers from legal, compliance and HR, as well as individual experts, without whose knowledge the idea can’t scale.

From pioneer to professional processes

As a proven idea is scaled, increasing financial and operational constraints are applied to ensure that what was valuable and viable for a small group of users remains so for a large group.

Be prepared for the cadence of decision making to slow as procedurally minded controllers get involved in scaling and question the value of the change, especially if juxtaposed against the short-term disturbance it creates.

When that happens hold your nerve, stay with the course and seek protection from senior management. Differentiate between changes that are disruptive but valuable, and those that won't hold up under scrutiny.

Mary Mesaglio is a research vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner in the CIO research team. She focuses on helping large enterprises to innovate and change their culture.

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