The Innovation Gap and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Posted 12/01/2017

We often hear a cry go up for more innovation within the supply chain. The great hope is that, somewhere out there, is a detail of differentiation which will lead our business to a new level of greatness and if only we could find it, we’d be better off. 

When we look at innovation as a concept, it runs into a number of challenges, starting out with ‘what is innovation’? We’re often faced with innovation from all sorts of directions; new concepts, new efficiency approves, new materials, new thoughts and ideas, new processes, new IT systems. All this new greatness is available and we’re often struggling to take advantage of it. 

This leads us swiftly to the idea of focus. Which area and what sort of innovation are we really talking about here? There is an inherent risk in focussing: while looking intently at one thing, we may miss a herd of differentiation and excitement sweeping by in another area. This seems to suggest we need to adopt a style of looking at the business and ideas environment around us in much the same way that a motorcyclist (or one that intends being a motorcyclist for a long time) scans both the immediate area and more distant horizons, seeking hazards to defend against.

In a similar thought process, the avid motorcyclist must process what they are looking at and decide if the hazard identified deserves a particular response; slowing down, speeding up, braking, steering, jumping off and running away. Not all hazards deserve the same response; some can be ignored, some dealt with gently, some avoided with skill and alacrity. 

Equally, when faced with an innovation, we need to undertake the same thought process of evaluation. Some are safely off our path, some require a second glance, others require us to get hold of them immediately and deliver their value at full speed. 

We also need to keep this flow of ideas coming. We need to acknowledge all of them and cherish the effort it took to develop something that we couldn’t possibly use, to encourage the next idea to head our way as well. Pointing and laughing will not encourage future engagement. 

The most challenging part is that great concepts seldom arrive fully formed. There is often a degree of gestation and development inherent in the formation of a concept and we may need to allow time (measured in months and years, not minutes and hours) for the idea to form more fully. As such, we may need to provide encouragement and development space to get the most out of the concepts we have found. 

This, together, is starting to suggest a mix of skills and approaches which will have to be deployed. In terms of systems, we need to be able to track ideas and innovation, both to catalogue them but also to be able to check where they are in our triage approach. We need to have the facilitation skills to encourage development and participation across a range of stakeholders, both inside and out. We need to be warm to the idea of testing and experimenting with new approaches and building them into our category strategies. We need the courage to grasp something and drive it in, often in the face of considerable resistance. 

So, next time we hear a blithe cry for ‘more innovation’, let’s take a step back and see if we can set it up to succeed, not fail.

Tagged by topic: Category Management , Supplier Management , Supply Market Innovation

  by Allison Ford-Langstaff

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